Sinological Profiles
Erwin von Zach
18 Apr 1872 (Vienna) - 19 Jan 1942 (at sea, west of Sumatra)

Erwin von Zach

von Zach was a famously contentious personality, capable of castigating his former teacher Schlegel as a "pathological phenomenon." He eventually alienated many of his colleagues, and with them most of his opportunities for publication. Parts of his extensive body of translations from Tang poetry, and almost the whole of the standard Six Dynasties anthology Wvn Sywaen, which are usually seen as his chief contribution to the field, were accordingly published in obscure places, and required later regathering and republication, a process which is still incomplete.

He was born in Vienna of aristocratic parents, and his early life was peripatetic. He attended gymnasium in Krakow (in a Polish-speaking school), Lemburg, and finally Vienna, at the end of which he was certified as remarkably proficient in Greek philology. Interest in the natural sciences drew him to the study of medicine at the University of Vienna beginning in 1890, three years after the death of Pfizmaier. This study he varied with work on his other interests, including mathematics, which was to remain a lifelong interest. He also studied classical Chinese under Franz Kühnert, and modern Chinese under Carl Kainz. In 1895, being then twenty-three, he became ill with appendicitis, and required an operation. To recuperate, he went first to the Tyrol and then to Holland. In Leiden, he enrolled as a special auditor in the classes of Schlegel and de Groot. Schlegel's pedagogical maxim ("Lisez, lisez; jetez le grammaire") in effect recommends self-teaching, and von Zach seems indeed to have been substantially self-taught, not only in Chinese, but also in Tibetan and Manchu, the latter still at this time the court language of China. For the rest of his life, his scholarly output would be concerned with beginnings, with first questions, with digging at the roots, with providing "Hilfsmittel" for the language acquisition process at which he himself was phenomenally gifted, but in which he resented the defective aids then available to him.

After two semesters he wrote a joint article with Schlegel for T'oung Pao, himself doing the Manchu parts of a parallel text, and Schlegel the Chinese parts. von Zach's eyes also strayed to Schlegel's half of the page, and he was later to say of it that "not a single sentence was translated correctly." On the strength of a second article, on Manchu grammar, he was invited in 1897 to take part in the Morris Jesup Northern Expedition of 1897-1901. This invitation von Zach declined, as he would decline every other remotely academic invitation that would come his way, and the relevant post with the Jesup expedition was given instead to Berthold Laufer, then fresh out of graduate school and in the process of migrating to America. von Zach went instead to London to take a qualifying exam for the Chinese maritime customs service. From this career choice he never wavered. His scholarly publications would share desk space with his diplomatic duties for the next twenty-eight years.

From the Chinese customs service he shifted on 27 March 1901 to the Austro-Hungarian consular service, where his language skills were desperately needed. Sir Robert Hart of the Imperial Maritime Customs, commenting on the transfer a year later to the Austrian chief of mission, Sinologist Arthur von Rosthorn, said gracefully "I am glad to have been able to assist your Legation when it was short-handed." Zach began his new duties in Peking, where he served under von Rosthorn. On the side, he published four volumes of Lexicographische Beiträge in the years 1902-1906. In 1907, declining an offer of a Professorship of Manchu in Vladivostok, he became chief of mission in Hong Kong, and thereafter shifted to Yokohama. He returned to Vienna in 1909 to defend the Lexicographische Beiträge as a dissertation. There being at this time no Sinologist in Vienna, von Zach was examined by Leopold von Schröder, a Sanskritist, and Maximilian Bittner, a Semiticist. He returned to the diplomatic field as chief of mission in Singapore. His lexicographical strictures, the first volume of which had been faulted by Pelliot in 1902 for its author's excessive contentiousness, eventually received a truer estimate from Giles, his colleague in the European consular services. In the preface to the 1912 second edition of his Dictionary, Giles said this:

Some few of my contemporaries have done good service by systematically noting these blunders down, and calling my attention to them. First and foremost I have to mention Mr E von Zach, Consul-General at Singapore for Austria-Hungary, whose efforts in this direction have been of incalculable value towards securing a higher degree of accuracy in the present work than was attained in the first edition.

This generous acknowledgement so touched von Zach that he included it, years later, in a brief Autobiographical Sketch which he wrote in 1937 for the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

1919 marked the end of WW1. It also marked the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. von Zach was pensioned off. He was almost fifty, and almost broke. He appealed to Laufer for assistance from an Austro-Hungarian association in Chicago, None resulted. Laufer's efforts to find him an academic post in America also came to nothing. Instead, von Zach went to work for the Dutch consular service in the Netherlands East Indies. He was later to list "greater precision in translation from the Chinese" as one of his main scholarly objectives, and his work after 1919 was largely focused in this direction, producing lexicographical studies in parallel with an impressive body of illustrative translations. The translations were flat and straightforward, and they frequently imported the commentary into the text, but they did give a steady, consecutive, and accurate idea of what the text was up to. In 1923, Bruno Schindler inaugurated the journal Asia Major in Germany. As Waley had done some years earlier with the new BSOAS, von Zach became one of its chief contributors, with translations of Du Fu and other Tang poets. He resigned from the Dutch service in 1925 to live as a private person in Weltereden in the Netherlands East Indies, dedicating himself thenceforth to study, publishing longer articles in the European journals and short reviews and notices in Deutsche Wacht, a magazine edited for the local German community in the Netherlands East Indies. His previous critical stance continued, with a particularly virulent attack on Otto Franke in 1925. At this time, however, he was still able to function as a member of the scholarly community. To Haenisch, about the possibility of a call to Göttingen, he wrote in 1926:

I don't know when I may be coming to Europe, but I feel quite comfortable here as a private citizen. At the beginning of 1925 I resigned my position in the consular service, and now live solely for my philological, mathematical, and scientific studies. I wholly lack the qualifications of a teacher of the young, and have never thought of a Professorship. I also very much doubt if the Prussian Ministry would have me called to Göttingen. The financial question would not weigh with me; rather, the greatest hindrance is my feeling that I would not be able to satisfactorily fulfil the requirements of the appointment.

Arthur Waley

von Zach continued to pursue his own massive work, but in addition, be became something like a Sinological spectator and general commentator. He had kind things to say about Waley's "The Temple and Other Poems" (1923) in a February 1927 review in Deutsche Wacht:

Arthur Waley is ein Schatzgräber, der aus den tiefen Schächten ostasiatischer Kultur und Kunst schon so manches Kleinod zu Tage gefördert hat. Er verbindet in glücklicher Kombination philologische Begabung mit dicterischer Inspiration und versteht es, wie kaum ein zweiter under der jetz lebenden Sinologen, fremde Werte zu erkennen and sie poetisch umzugesltalten.

The only point that moved him to anything resembling a correction was Waley's comment, about Szma Syang-ru, "I do not think that anyone who has read Hsiang-ju's poems will blame me for not attempting to translate them. Such a glittering torrent of words has never since poured from the pen of any writer in the world. He sports with language as a dolphin sports with the sea. Such eloquence cannot be described, much less translated." Nothing daunted, and with the remark "Hier meine version," von Zach proceeded to render 24 lines of Syang-ru into German, not without a certain sound magic, including alliteration and near-rhyme.

Of Margouliès' Le Kou-wen Chinois (1926), von Zach remarked in March of 1927:

Das Werk ersetzt einen tüchtigen chinesischen Lettré und bedeutet für das Studium eine immense Zeitersparnis; man kann nur wünschen, dass es unter den jungen Sinologen die allergrösste Verbreitung finde.

He then proceeded to make several useful corrections. So also with the same author's "Le fou dans le Wen-siuan" (1926) in the following, April 1927 issue of Deutsche Wacht. Meanwhile, Otto Franke had reviewed both the Margouliès works, with his own corrections, in Deutsche Literaturzeitung 1927, and in the process had introduced new errors of his own. von Zach, nettled, addressed the matter in June 1927, referring to Franke's Studien zur Geschichte des confuzianischen Dogmas (1920) as "jenem pathologischen Kriegsprodukt." At the end, von Zach felt moved to say, with Cicero,

Quousque tandem, Franke, abutere patientia nostra?

He was unimpressed by the Erkes translation of Sung Yw's "Song of the Goddess," which had appeared in T'oung-pao in 1928. In June of that year, he noted

im Text finden sich zahlreiche Druckfehler, die Übersetzung ist (selbst nach several important corrections by Prof. Pelliot) unter aller Kritik und die meisten Noten sind unrichtig oder wertlos. Hier einige Beispiele . . .

and the examples continue for a page.

He could also be gracious. In a July 1928 review, he noted several errors in Florence Ayscough's translations of Chinese poems in Fir-Flower Tablets (1922), but remarked at the end, of his own previous translation of a particular couplet:

Hier is meine urspüngliche Übersetzung vollkommen unrichtig und ich kann nur bedauern, Mrs Ayscough's bessere Version nicht früher gekannt zu haben.

Paul Pelliot

von Zach became an honorary member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 1928, but in Germany, De Groot, Franke, Forke, and those who looked to them as models, were permanently embittered by his criticisms. Then at the end of 1929 came Pelliot's sentence of banishment from the pages of T'oung Pao:

M E von Zach s'est déconsidéré comme savant par ses balourdises. M E von Zach s'est disqualifié comme homme par ses grossièretés. Il ne sera plus question de M E von Zach dans le T'oung Pao.

To this von Zach responded, not without wry charm, in Deutsche Wacht for 1929,

In der Dezembernummer 1929 des T'oung-Pao widmet Paul Pelliot volle zehn Seiten meiner Wenigkeit. Am Ende einer ebenso heftigen wie giftigen Diatribe schleudert ER den Bannstrahl gegen mich und nennt mich balourd und grossier. Schimpfen ist immer nur ein Zeichen von Schwäche und entscheidet auch im vorliegenden Falle nicht, wer von uns beiden jene schmeichelhafter Epitheta verdient. . .

von Zach felt that Pelliot had no interest in the truth of the matters in dispute (the correct translation of Chinese words), "sondern nur um Diskreditierung und Ridikulisierung des Boche." Some European scholars, including some in Germany, felt that von Zach's contribution was positive. Erich Haenisch, looking back in 1964 on "the old Asia Major," noted how highly von Zach's contributions to the journal were regarded by some, including himself, but he also had this to say:

Of course one could not mention his name in De Groot's presence. When I once dared to break a lance for him, he came straight back at me, "Do you want Sinology in Berlin to be built, or demolished?" Well, naturally, built, but Zach ought to help with the building. This positive contribution he himself unfortunately denied us, by the often intemperate tone of his criticisms.

Bernhard Karlgren

Back in Batavia, von Zach continued to find an outlet in the pages of Deutsche Wacht, and in a volume of Sinologische Beiträge published by himself in 1930. In a short review of 1930 he welcomed Karlgren's epochal article The Authenticity of Ancient Chinese Texts (BMFEA 1929):

Mit mathematischer Schärfe weiss Karlgren gewisse Richtungslinien festzulegen, denen der europäische, aber auch chinesische Textkritiker bei Beurteilung chinesischer Werke in Zukunft wird folgen müssen. Man bekommt hier zum ersten Male in der Geschichte der Sinologie ein Eindruck, dass europäische Methoden vielleicht imstande sein werden, uns in dieser Wissenschaft weiter zu führen, als die Chinesen selbst - mit all ihrer hervorragenden philologischen Begabung - gekommen sind.

Of Pelliot's comments on Forke's version of "Konfuzius' Klage" in T'oung-Pao (1931), von Zach noted that they contained several errors of their own, and proceeded to set them forth. He first gave his own version, from which that of Forke scarcely differed, and then noted Pelliot's objections, remarking in general

Wenn man von der chinesischen Dichtkunst so wenig versteht wie Pelliot, ist Schweigen Gold.

Karlgren's Shï King Researches (BMFEA 1932), and his "The Poetical Parts in Lao-tsi" (1932) were received as disposing at a stroke of several wrong hypotheses about the classical texts. Granet's theory that many of the Shr were genuine folk pieces was refuted by Karlgren's discovery that the rhyming of the Shr was consistent, and could only reflect the usage of court poets. Herbert Giles had thought that the Dau/Dv Jing was compiled in Later Han from various sources, but Karlgren's results showed a too consistent rhyme practice. Maspero had said that the Gwandz was a forgery of the 4th or 5th centuries AD; Karlgren had proved that it must be authentic. Here again was Sinological progress.

In the momentous year 1933, when German scholarship was Nazified, when Asia Major was shut down in the middle of a volume, and when Deutsche Wacht, halfway around the world, also ceased to exist, von Zach's only remaining outlet was his own Sinologische Beiträge. Three more volumes of Beiträge appeared, the last of them in 1939. In May 1940, Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands, but the Netherlands East Indies continued on the Allied side of the war, against Germany. Accordingly, that government interned all German or former Austrian residents as dangerous aliens (the argument that many of them were Jews, or otherwise refugees from Naziism, was rejected by the government), and imprisoned them at Padang, on West Sumatra. A year and a half passed.

The Dutch Merchant Ship van Imhoff (Click for Larger Image)

In January 1942, with the Japanese invasion of Sumatra imminent, the 477 German internees were put aboard the Dutch merchant ship van Imhoff for transfer to British custody in Ceylon. On 19 January 1942, the ship was attacked by a Japanese torpedo plane west of the island of Nias, about 100 km west of Sumatra. The Dutch crew escaped in lifeboats, leaving the Germans to their fate. 53 Germans, in a lifeboat left behind by the crew, managed to make their way to the coast of Nias. The rest drowned as the ship quickly sank.

It fell to Forke to write the first obituary notice. It was partly a defense of himself against the severe comments which von Zach, while living, had directed against him:

von Zach for the most part cites no evidence, but simply asserts that what he says is right, and that what the other has written is wrong. It is merely one assertion against another. In many cases, the attacked and not the attacker is correct. In many cases too, a clear decision is not possible, because the Chinese expression is so ambivalent that it can be explained in various ways. And many objections concern minutiae, which are of no importance, and which have no effect on the meaning.

There is much to this, and yet it is not a tenable place to rest the argument. The ancient philosophical texts (which Forke has chiefly in mind) were surely meant to mean something and not something else, even if portions of them are opaque at first glance to us today. And how can we tell if some minute point contributes to that meaning, until we get it right in the first place? If this uncertainty is what the great professionals give us, as von Zach more or less said in 1926, what shall we expect from the amateurs?

Some of von Zach's publications and personal papers are now preserved in the Austrian Academy of Sciences Library. His reputation has also undergone some posthumous repair, beginning as early as 1944, when the German Institute in Peking, from which Hellmut Wilhelm had had to resign some years earlier, collected and reprinted his earlier critiques of von der Gabelentz's Chinese Grammar, thus acknowledging their usefulness (although the 1953 reprint of Gabelentz took no notice of them). In 1952 came the Harvard-Yenching Institute reprintings of his Han Yw, Du Fu, and Wvn Sywaen translations. Of the Han Yw translations, Boodberg said in 1953,

In the Valhalla of the warriors of the pen, the shadow of Erwin Ritter von Zach must be deeply gratified by the Institute's posthumous recognition of his irascible talent and prodigious industry.

Time has validated, though it has not literarily embraced, von Zach's aggressively plain versions of these mostly poetical works. He himself, too optimistically, saw them not only as an aid to students, but as a future resource for German poetry (some had been published in collaboration with the literature specialist Alfred Hoffmann). The likely balance point is somewhere in between. Looking at rival translators from the stylistic vantage point of von Zach's Du Fu, it is fair to say that the eccentricities of Boodberg, the cultural pieties of William Hung, and the empathetic limitations of Waley, emerge in a clear if not flattering light. von Zach showed what Chinese literature looked like; the highroad and not just its more congenial bypaths. He took that highroad it as it came, without flinching. Said Boodberg,

. . . von Zach has long deserved to have his work made accessible to a wider public, particularly to the younger generation of scholars one of whose predestined tasks is the systematic exploration, hall by hall and niche after niche, of the magnificent temple of Chinese literature.

To accept the whole is far more difficult than leaving oneself the option to pick and choose. A R Davis caught something of this in a 1971 comment, in connection with his own translations:

Only when one has attempted to translate a substantial number of Tu Fu's poems does one begin properly to appreciate the magnitude of von Zach's achievement and the high standard it maintains.

Those who work their way up the partly poetry-strewn slopes of a Chinese classical acquaintanceship - those who toil to answer the first question: What does this mean? - owe much to von Zach; not least at those moments when, by severe effort and application, they succeed in improving upon him. The guide who never stumbles is not the ideal guide. Something must be left for the student to be better at.

However irascible toward his colleagues, von Zach was faithful to his sources, and considerate of his fellow students, which is to say, all of us who populate these later centuries. It was for us that he savaged the stuffed shirts, doing his part to lay a sounder foundation than they were willing to get by with. He was concerned for the future, and now and then, amid the errors of his time, he saw it coming.

E Bruce Brooks


Georg Lehner and Geff Green contributed to this profile.

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