(Photo caption: Hawkes: he resigned his Oxford chair to dedicate
himself to his translation)
David Hawkes was one of the greatest translators from the Chinese of
his time. He will be best and longest remembered for two highly
important works: the first and earliest, his superb version of the
hauntingly lyrical (and extremely difficult) early anthology of
shamanistic poetry, The Songs of the South; the second, his
extraordinarily rich, versatile and loving re-creation of the first
three volumes of the great 18th-century novel The Story of the Stone.
This, a supreme example of the translator's art, was, when it first
appeared, hailed in the Times Higher Education Supplement as "one of
the best translations into English of our time", and has since been
the subject of numerous critical studies. It set entirely new
standards for the translation of Chinese fiction. "David of all
people", wrote his contemporary and friend Cyril Birch, "had the
learning, the wit, and the command of the aristocratic culture to meet
The Stone was his crowning achievement, his own favourite project.
Into it he poured all of his scholarship and creative passion and
invention. He had dreamt of working on it ever since his student days
in Peking in the 1940s. His identification with the work and its
author was so complete that when, in 1970, he finally decided to
translate it in full, he resigned from his chair at Oxford to dedicate
himself totally to the task. As he wrote, this was a novel "written
and rewritten by a great artist with his very lifeblood".
The same can be said of the translation itself. Hawkes brought to bear
such a wide range of rhetorical skills, such penetrating insight into
character, such finely honed dialogue, such superbly crafted
versification; but more than anything, such a profound sense of
humanity, such fun and exhilaration, such melancholy and wisdom. In it
he succeeds in grasping to the full, and yet at the same time
transcending, the sheer Chineseness of the work, making it into a real
novel for reading, revealing it as a true masterpiece of world
literature. He did this out of sheer love of the book. "If I can
convey to the reader even a fraction of the pleasure this Chinese
novel has given me," he wrote in 1973, "I shall not have lived in
Many years later it was — to his pleasure and amusement — this very
translation that the new Chinese Ambassador to the Court of St James,
Mme Fu Ying, chose to present to the Queen on a recent official visit
to the Palace.
David Hawkes was born in 1923, and grew up in East London. In 1942 he
went up to Christ Church, Oxford, for a year, to study the abbreviated
classical mods, and then spent the remaining war years teaching
Japanese to codebreakers. After the war he returned to Oxford,
transferring to the new Honours School of Chinese, under the former
missionary E. R. Hughes. In 1948 there began what was certainly the
most influential period in his life, when he travelled to Peking (then
in the last throes of the civil war) and began to study at the Peking
university, attending classes by such legendary older scholars as Yu
Pingbo, LuoChangpei, Tang Lan and Lin Geng. In Peking he also joined
the circle of William Empson and his wife Hetta.
Empson's intellectual and poetic genius made a lasting impression, and
the couple's bohemian lifestyle attracted him. Throughout his career
he was always more comfortable among creative people, than with
academic pedants. In the newly liberated Peking he married his wife
Jean. They finally left the city in 1951. Hawkes never went back to
Peking, or to China. But he remembered every detail of the old city,
and could find his way around the alleys, or hutongs, in his dreams.
Today nearly all of that is gone. The new
"Olympic" Beijing of multiple ring roads would have shocked him.
Back in Oxford Hawkes completed his doctoral dissertation on The Songs
of the South. His work attracted the attention of the pre-eminent
Chinese scholar and translator, Arthur Waley, who became his mentor
and friend, and named him as his literary executor.
Elected to the chair of Chinese in 1959, he spent a dozen years
building up a fine department, where literary and classical studies
flourished, but where modern China was by no means ignored. He rapidly
acquired an enormous international reputation as a scholar who was
rigorous in his methods, encyclopaedic in his reading and humane in
his mode of expression. He was an inspiring teacher, giving scholarly
but entertaining lectures that betrayed his early love of the theatre.
He resigned from the chair in 1971, and after a brief interval, was
made a research Fellow of All Souls, a position which enabled him to
complete his three volumes of the Stone (1973-80). He was always
grateful to the Warden of the college, John Sparrow, for his support
at this time.
Hawkes and his wife Jean retired to the Welsh hills in 1984. He
thought he would give up Chinese altogether, and donated his fine
collection of Chinese books to the National Library of Wales at
Aberystwyth. He concentrated instead on the study of the Welsh
language, and read widely in the history of religion, on which he
wrote a brilliant series of essays in the form of letters to a
grandchild, Letters from a Godless Grandfather, which was published
privately in Hong Kong in 2004. He was a biting (and often hilariously
funny) critic of the sheer nonsense that so often passes for religion.
He was also a passionate opponent of US and British military
involvement in the Middle East, raging against Israel's brutal
treatment of the Palestinians and joining protest marches.
Hawkes's life and work were both inspired and overshadowed by a
strongly melancholic streak. He was a genius, a towering figure in his
profession. What he himself wrote in 1966 of Arthur Waley is equally
true of him: "Greatness in men is a rare but unmistakable quality. In
our small profession it is unlikely we shall see a man of such
Hawkes is survived by his wife, Jean, three daughters and a son.
David Hawkes, scholar and Chinese translator, was born on July 6,
1923. He died on July 31, 2009, aged 86