August 3, 2021

In Beijing, the mad ambassador of poetry and the “Chinese Victor Hugo”


From time to time, a strange rumor runs through the corridors of the European Delegation in Beijing: “This is not the moment to disturb the ambassador, he is at VIIIe century “.

The rumor is partly unfounded: both diplomat and translator, the representative of the European Union in China, Frenchman Nicolas Chapuis, is careful not to mix his two functions. “I’m enough of a panda figure like that”, he laughs. But only in part. His passion for classical Chinese poetry is such that it is hard to imagine this scholar resisting the temptation to immerse himself in a poem by his dear Du Fu between two “conf calls” with Brussels.

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At the end of the world, the collection that Les Belles Lettres has just published gives an overview of the extent of his knowledge. A small preview. These sixty-two poems written in the year 759 by Du Fu and which this Sinologist translated and presented in a work of 588 pages constitute only the third volume of an immense work.

“There are 1,400 poems in all. At the rate of sixty to one hundred poems per volume, that should be at least fifteen volumes “, says the translator, eyes sparkling like those of a child in front of a treasure chest. “Knowing that I put two years per volume and that then Les Belles Lettres also need two years to publish it, I still have twenty years”, he specifies, anticipating the question.

Humor and innuendo

Each poem is not only translated but accompanied by several pages of comments and references. A real work of Benedictine. “We must not go too fast. Some poems are so important that I devote several months to them. It took more than a year to translate the sixty-four lines of “Tristes Automnes” ”, he explains before delivering this confession: “If I reach the end, I will not have lived for nothing: it will remain. “

Working for posterity – in fact libraries – Nicolas Chapuis cares little that the first volume sold less than 600 copies. It is however a shame because this lover of words succeeds in the feat of translating poems full of humor and innuendo written and sung in a language that has become incomprehensible to the Chinese of the XXI.e century in so many little gems written in French that is both contemporary and elegant.

Evidenced by the beginning of Farewell to the bride.

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