Tribute: Burton Watson, 1925 – 2017

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During the second half of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first century, Burton Watson translated a wide range of works of premodern Chinese literature into highly readable, reliable English. His numerous published translations span the gamut of Chinese texts from history to poetry, prose, philosophy, and religion.  He was also an accomplished translator from Japanese, especially of poetry and religious literature.

For a fine appreciation of the man and his work, see Lucas Klein's "Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson" (World Literature Today, May-August 2014).

Lucas will be compiling a collection of remembrances of Watson, to be presented on his blog. If you have anything you would like to share about Watson, from the perspective of a writer, translator, or reader, please send it to Lucas at,

Here's a personal remembrance of my own:

Sometime around the mid-70s, I had the great, good fortune to be invited to a dinner at the home of my mentor, Patrick Hanan.  Also in attendance that evening were James Hightower and Burton Watson.  I distinctly recall, already at that time, my impression of Watson being a venerable scholar of enormous achievements.  Yet think of all that he accomplished since that time four decades ago!

Despite his stature as a preeminent translator, Burton displayed no pretensions whatsoever.  He put me completely at my ease.  We had a pleasant, relaxed conversation about how we both had gotten into the study of Chinese literature and our mutual joy in translating it well.

Many of Watson's works appeared under the under the imprint of Columbia University Press (CUP), and I have also had a long association with CUP.  Our scholarly paths crossed again in the early 90s when Jennifer Crewe, my editor at Columbia, asked me to take a look at Watson's translation of the Lotus Sutra, which she hoped to publish.  Much as I admired Watson's translations, I said to Jennifer, "Why would you want to do that?  You already have Leon Hurvitz's great translation of the Lotus.  Why would you want to have two competing translations on your list?"

I was referring to the Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, which had been published in 1976, and which I consider to be a work of genius.  In it, Hurvitz (who was one of my teachers) had worked out a method whereby the reader could tell at a glance whether a given Buddhist term in Chinese had been translated or transcribed from the corresponding term in Sanskrit.

Jennifer confided in me, "But people can't read the Hurvitz translation.  You know what I mean, Victor.  It's only for specialists.  I want a version of the Lotus that anyone can pick up and read."

So I agreed to evaluate Watson's manuscript, and I could see at once how vastly different and more accessible it was than Hurvitz's.  CUP went on to publish Watson's translation and it has been a big success.  Happily, both the Hurvitz Lotus and the Watson Lotus are both in print, each meeting the needs of a different readership:  Hurvitz for the Indologists, Sinologists, and Buddhologists, and Watson for the literarily minded and anyone with an interest in Asian religions.

Just a word about Watson's style:  spare, yet elegant.  Reading a translation by Burton Watson is like contemplating the creation of a master Scandinavian designer:  the lines are clean, neat, and beautiful.  He kept the blooming to a minimum.

I will end by quoting the CUP blog post "On Burton Watson (1925-2017)" (4/7/17) by Jennifer Crewe, who is now Vice Provost of Columbia University and Director of Columbia University Press.  As an editor at the Press, she worked with Watson for 30 years before his death.

Burton Watson died a few days ago, and with his passing the world has lost one of its greatest translators. Burton was one of the only people who possessed the extraordinary ability to translate equally well from both Chinese and Japanese. In fact, one of the early anthologies he translated and edited for Columbia University Press was Japanese Literature in Chinese, a title that puzzled me greatly when I first arrived at the Press, knowing nothing about Chinese or Japanese literature. Burton was deeply familiar with both languages and cultures. He started learning Japanese while serving in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Japan during World War II (as did several giants in the field of his generation, including Donald Keene and Wm. Theodore deBary, also seminal Columbia figures who created the Columbia Asia program and started the Press’s list in East Asian civilizations). After Watson’s discharge he enrolled at Columbia and received his Ph.D. in Chinese literature in 1956. The Press published a revised version of his dissertation, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Grand Historian of China, beginning what would be a sixty-year relationship.

In addition to working freely in both languages, Burton also moved easily from premodern classics (his Zhuangzi, originally published in its Wade-Giles version in 1968, is still one of the Press’s best-selling books) to works from the modern period. He was at home translating a similarly wide range of genres, from ancient history (Records of the Grand Historian of China) to philosophy and religion (Analects of Confucius and The Lotus Sutra), to literature (Tales of the Heike and Selected Poems of Du Fu).

I marveled at his ability and at his copious production. When he finished one book and sent it to me, there was often a period of silence; then he would write and ask what I thought he should translate next.

I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, told to me by someone who visited Burton’s Tokyo apartment and watched as he sat at his manual typewriter looking at whatever book he was translating and simply typing the translation as he read the original, without having to look up any words. As a nonspeaker of Chinese and Japanese, I rely on experts to tell me whether a transition is an accurate and faithful rendition of the original. But as a reader I rely on my ear. It was clear to me that Burton was an avid reader of American poetry—particularly of the Williams era. His translations, particularly of poetry, are concise, deceptively simple, and evocative. And they employ the language of everyday speech, which is why they are so successful with students. Burton’s translations opened up the world of East Asian culture to countless students and general readers. Over the years I would occasionally hear criticisms—Watson’s translations were not “scholarly” enough. Burton eschewed notes, and it was often difficult to coax even an introduction out of him. But his translations will last because of the simple beauty of his English idiom. Many “scholarly” translations do not display that inner beauty. Burton’s translations seem effortless. He strove for that.

By my count Columbia University Press has 41 books in print with Watson’s name attached to them. I have been at the Press 30 years, so that is how long I knew Burton. I got acquainted with him slowly, by means of old-fashioned letter-writing. He would send me carefully typed pale blue aerograms, which I would open with trepidation lest I accidentally tear off any of his prose, which was friendly, spare, and efficient, sometimes with a note of petulance—“I don’t suppose you liked my last manuscript much”—if I had failed to respond promptly to what he’d sent. I never saw his apartment, but I always imagined him sitting in a barely furnished Japanese-style room, with the typewriter, and later the computer, in the center on a small desk, and with books all around.

My relationship with Burton remained mostly epistolary on into the e-mail era, when his messages were shorter and lost a bit of flair, but I did see him several times when he came to Columbia for a semester some 20 years ago, and then twice in Tokyo more recently. The last time I saw him was in 2012, and he seemed in good health and rather chipper. He took me on a long walk through the Imperial Palace Gardens, and it seemed to me that he could go on walking forever.

All day
In the mountains
Ants too are walking

From For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santoka
Translated by Burton Watson

I can't think of a better way to end this post than on that sensitive note.


  1. Christopher Coulouris said,

    April 12, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

    Thank you for your tribute to Burton Watson Professor Mair. One of my favorite books by Burton Watson is The Rainbow World: Japan in essays and translation. It is a wonderful account of Watson's many years of residence in Japan. He could have stayed on as a professor at Columbia but he made a bold decision to move to Japan and devote full time to translaton. Thank you to Professor Watson and all other translators who help build bridges and understanding between cultures.

  2. Alex said,

    April 12, 2017 @ 9:39 pm

    "Despite his stature as a preeminent translator, Burton displayed no pretensions whatsoever. He put me completely at my ease. We had a pleasant, relaxed conversation about how we both had gotten into the study of Chinese literature and our mutual joy in translating it well."

    I think Professor Mair has carried on this tradition. I am not a linguist nor a scholar of any kind. I am just a simple father looking for answer and he graciously answered some questions even though many could be found on earlier posts.

    Thank you, this blog and community with its feedback/comments has enriched my world and that of my children.

  3. Richard John Lynn said,

    April 16, 2017 @ 10:07 am

    I remember two conversations I had with Burton Watson, both late 60s-early 70s; both about translation. One about his own procedure: He would draft out a translation, either hand-written or roughly typed. This he would shove away in a drawer somewhere handy, where he would leave it, sometimes up to a month without looking at it. Then, he would take it out and, deliberately without looking at the original Chinese or Japanese, render it into English that pleased him. He said he wanted to think entirely in English about it, his own native language, convinced that it would result in something less stilted and spontaneously fluent. This likely would then be close to if not the "final" version. The other was practical and financial. I was debating then to do a translation of Yoshikawa Kojiro's 元明诗概说 (Outline of Yuan and Ming Classical Verse) since he had already done a translation of Yoshikawa's study of Song poetry–he dissuaded me from doing so, saying that the labor was not worth it, the pittance he only got for doing the Song volume seemed to still rankle him. Ah, well Tim Wixted did it later, pro bono noble fellow that he is. Watson was a really nice guy to have interacted so generously with me, then a young nobody in the field (now I am an old nobody in the field).

  4. Phil Williams said,

    April 17, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

    A festschrift volume in honor of Burton Watson came out in 2015. Edited by Jesse Glass and Philip Williams, _Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson_ contains seventeen fully annotated chapters by such notable scholars and translators as William Nienhauser, Jr., Robert Hegel, Victor Mair, Jonathan Chaves, Robert Epp, and Duncan Campbell. It is available for $15 in paperback from Amazon at the following URL:

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

    NYT obituary

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