SF State News {University Communications}

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Professor's anthology of Zen poetry attracts translation prize

Nov. 18, 2011 -- Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures Charles Egan has won the 2011 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for his annotated collection of poetry titled "Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown: Poems by Zen Monks of China."

Book jacket for Charles Egan's book

Published by Columbia University Press, the book is the culmination of more than a decade of scholarship on Egan's part. He sifted through thousands of poems authored by Chinese Chan monks (Zen in Japanese pronunciation) of the eighth to the seventeenth centuries and selected 190 works to translate.

Egan says that the simplicity of Chan poetry belies its complex ideology and sophisticated language, so he prefaced the poems with a description of the religious and literary background, and extensive explanatory notes and introductions to the poets follow. The book is designed to be accessible to undergraduates and readers who may be new to the genre.

The poems are characterized by "saying more by saying less." Most of them are no more than a dozen lines. Egan notes that the poems are designed to encapsulate momentary states of mind of an individual -- emotional reactions, philosophical insights or flashes of religious illumination.

"Reading Chan poetry is a splendid means to approach religious ideas and a good part of this book is devoted to explaining how," Egan said. "Yet more generally, it is the Chan practitioners themselves who are especially held up for view: how did they see the world, not only in terms of religion, but as people living a communal monastic existence? What were they like as individuals, and how were their personalities expressed? And how did they modify traditional poetic language in order to transform religious enlightenment into illuminating poetry?"

An expert on classical Chinese literature and culture, Egan is coordinator of the Chinese Program at SF State and director of the University's Chinese Flagship Partner Program.

The Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize is awarded annually by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). The prize, which includes a $5,000 cash award, recognizes the importance of Asian translation for international literature and promotes the translation of Asian works into English. Egan accepted the Prize at the ALTA conference in Kansas City on Nov. 17.

The prize jury praised "Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown"for "not only the high quality of its translations, which strive to keep a handsome formal ease even when observing in English the demands of syntactic parallelism, but also the considerable scholarship that Egan employs with admirable accessibility. Egan has put together a rich and remarkable book."

-- Elaine Bible


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