I learned only just now of the passing of D. C. Lau on Monday. If you weren’t a China Studies major, you may not recognize the name, but his passing is of great significance to me, despite the fact that I never met him. Dr. Lau, through his translation work, affected me more deeply than most people I have met.
I know little about his long and storied career as an academic and professor. I cannot speak to his amicable personality, or share anecdotes about his warmth as a person. In fact, until today, I’m not sure I had ever even seen a picture of him. But it’s a testament to Dr. Lau’s skill that I know so little about him, for his relationship with me was entirely selfless. So great was his skill in translation that he was able to take the words and the worlds of men like Confucius, Mencius, and Laozi and present them to me so naturally and fluidly that I never even noticed his presence.
It was in the fall of my freshman year in college that I found myself, by random chance, enrolled in a course on Chinese philosophy. Consequently, there was a pile of what seemed to be esoteric wisdom spilling from my backpack on the first day of class. The classics were all there. Slingerland’s translation of The Analects of Confucius, Graham’s translation of Zhuangzi, Cleary’s translation of The Art of War, and two more modest looking Penguin Classics: Laozi and Mencius, both translated by D. C. Lau.
Laozi’s Daodejing was the first to appeal to me, although I fell in love with all of them eventually. I believe the Daodejing was also one of our first assignments, a comparatively light reading that some had probably forgotten by the next day. But if I were asked to trace my interest in China to a single moment in time, I think it would be that fall evening when, leaning against a tree in the courtyard in the vain hope that someone — perhaps an attractive girl — might be impressed I was reading, I stumbled across this passage:
The way is empty, yet use will not drain it.
Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures.
Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.
Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there.
I know not whose son it is.
It images the forefather of God.
I had absolutely no idea what it meant, of course, but the middle stanza in particular touched me on some subconscious level the moment I read it, and has stayed with me since. It intrigued me enough to keep me in the class, and take me through countless more on the minutiae of classical Daoism and meditative practice, and from them on to modern language and literature. Those words — Lau’s words, really — have remained with me like a subtle mantra, below the surface but ever-vibrating nonetheless, the ripples they create touching everything I think and do. I have to admit when I looked up the passage just now, I could feel tears welling up. It was never something I had expressed, but I think I had hoped that someday I would get a chance to meet him, and tell him how much his translation of that book had meant to me, and still means to me.
Were it not for D. C. Lau’s translations, would I still be interested in China? Studying Chinese? Would I have met many of my current friends? My fiancee? It’s impossible to say, but I can say with certainty that the world Lau revealed to me was otherwise entirely inaccessible. I can’t read classical Chinese even now, and I certainly couldn’t then. How many other hundreds or thousands of students like me are there? I feel certain there are many people who were profoundly touched by something Lau wrote, and that a good percentage of them don’t even remember his name.
I wasn’t particularly aware of Lau myself until I was asked to acquire a copy of the extremely rare bilingual edition (( This edition was also updated with a full translation of the Daodejing test found at Mawangdui for comparison with the original received text.)) of his Daodejing translation for a class. By that time, I had enough of a grasp of the language that when looking at the texts side-by-side, I could begin to comprehend exactly what it was the translator had accomplished, which naturally led me to wonder who the translator was. And, of course, there it was: D. C. Lau.
I fancy myself a bit of an amateur translator now, and I have seen just enough of the job to appreciate how impossible it is to do what D. C. Lau did so well. It takes not only great selflessness but tremendous skill to translate something as difficult as ancient poetry and leave oneself entirely out of it. Through translation, Dr. Lau opened the door to China for me, and then graciously stepped out of the way, allowing me to pass through it on my own without ever noticing he was there.
If you don’t own them already, Amazon has a nice collection of D.C. Lau’s works, although sadly the bilingual Daodejing seems to be impossible to find these days.