Matt Turner on Qin & Goodman’s Iron Moon Anthology

In a piece titled “A Poem of Shame: In the Words of China’s Workers” published at Hyperallergic, Matt Turner gives his take on Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and translated by Eleanor Goodman. He explains,

In 1923, not long after returning from working as a correspondent in Moscow, becoming the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and translating “The Internationale” for the first time into Chinese, Qu Qiubai wrote the poem “Iron Flower” (which I’ve translated below). It was written at an odd moment in CCP history: a literati like Qu could accomplish all he did politically and write modernist poetry, as much about the revolution as about signifying a new kind of beauty.

I’m not of a soft and smooth nature,
I’m not in the midst of glam and grace;
inside this smoke-filled factory,
forging my iron flower, fire surges.
Iron flower not receiving the warmth of sunlight,

iron flower not getting the solace of moonlight;
the unifying gale of fire in the furnace,
it cracks to burst the pistils into flame.
That place’s sound of hammers is dull,
that place’s sound of metal is staccato;
like a copper pine whipping the hard wind,
I’ve fallen in love, and can’t bear desertion.

This isn’t a fan dance, lightly circling across the floor —
but wherever you look are callouses — strong hands.
The inextinguishable flame burns in the factory,
and shines on my resolute and bold chest.

I billow labor’s rage in the iron furnace,
I envision, envision the Great Community,
and drunkenly belt out a song… the masses!
Forging my iron flower, fire surges.

… A volume of similar indictments, Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, collects work by Xu Lizhi and 30 other worker poets. Their poetry ranges from lyrical, like the above piece, to experimental (exemplified by another of Xu’s poems, a verbatim listing of a peanut butter production slip).

Poems are in verse, prose, and combinations thereof. Some tell stories, some list facts, some offer only fragments. The formal variety is on par with what you would get from any major anthology in the US (excepting spoken-word poetry).

The authors are not members of literary coteries, either. Aside from being poets, all they have in common is that they are migrant laborers.

Click the image for the full review.

Burton Watson Obituary in NYTimes Books Section

The New York Times books section has published an obituary of Burton Watson, over a month after he passed away. William Grimes writes:

Burton Watson, whose spare, limpid translations, with erudite introductions, opened up the world of classical Japanese and Chinese literature to generations of English-speaking readers, died on April 1 in Kamagaya, Japan. He was 91.

He rendered the poems of such classic Chinese writers as Su Tung-p’o, Po Chu-I and Du Fu and the Japanese poets Ryokan and Masaoka Shiki in a contemporary idiom informed by his wide reading in modern American poetry. In “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” (1987), the essayist Eliot Weinberger described Mr. Watson as not only “a prolific and particularly fine translator” but also “the first scholar whose work displays an affinity with the modernist revolution in American poetry: absolute precision, concision, and the use of everyday speech.” His admirers included the poets Gary Snyder and W. S. Merwin.

In 2015, the literary organization PEN awarded Mr. Watson its Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, calling him “the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time.”

Click on the image for the article in full.

Victor Mair again on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

On his own page at Language Log, Victor Mair has added to his earlier remembrance of Burton Watson:

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.

Click on the link above for the full entry.

Columbia UP’s Jennifer Crewe on Burton Watson

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.

Click the image above for the full remembrance.

NYTimes on the Elling Eide Center

The New York Times has published “Amid the Spanish Moss of Florida, a Treasure Chest of Chinese Literature,” by Ian Johnson, on translator and scholar Elling Eide and his eponymous Center in Sarasota. Johnson writes how Eide

decided to bring the world of Sinology to Sarasota. Already a voracious collector, he doubled down on his passion, buying entire collections of academic journals and books. His research specialty had been China’s most famous poet, Li Po, who lived during the Tang dynasty of the seventh to 10th centuries, often called China’s greatest. That dynasty became his focus. He amassed 75,000 volumes, including 50,000 in Chinese: one of the largest private Chinese-language libraries in the world, and larger than many well-known universities’ Chinese collections.

The project reflected what friends and relatives call Mr. Eide’s sometimes-manic personality. A onetime fitness buff with a dark brown beard, he became a paunchy recluse. He wore old clothes, chain-smoked Winstons and drove a beat-up Volkswagen bus. He poured his efforts into acquisitions but often neglected the details of cataloging and housing the books.

Click the image above for the full article.

Burton Watson NYTimes Obituary

The New York Times has finally published an obituary of Burton Watson. It reads:

Burton Dewitt Watson, scholar and translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, died on April 1, 2017, in Japan at the age of 92. As winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal in 2015, Dr. Watson was regarded as “the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time” …

his published work is extensive–Columbia University Press alone has 41 of his books still in print …

His surviving relatives knew him as a quiet, unassuming, and generous uncle with a dry sense of humor. He is survived by his partner of many years, Norio Hayashi of Tokyo, Japan; his niece Ann LeHentz Dundon of Santa Barbara, CA; his nephews John Peter Dundon of Onancock, VA, William Dwyer Dundon of Henderson, NV, and Thomas Andrew Dundon of San Marcos, TX; and his grandnieces Caroline Regan LeHentz Dundon and Ravelle Dundon and grandnephew Logan Dundon.

 
Click the image above for the full obituary.

John Timothy Wixted on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following comment is from John Timothy Wixted, translator and professor emeritus at Arizona State University:

“Remembering Burton Watson”

Tim Wixted

Harbert, Michigan

I first knew Burton Watson in 1965-66, as an M.A. student at Stanford when he was a visiting professor. He taught a Chinese poetry course which started with the “Nineteen Old Poems” of the Han. Another graduate student and I, unbidden, would bring available translations to class and read them aloud at the end of the discussion of each poem. We students would pounce on errors in translation. Watson’s approach was different. He listened intently to the rhythms and turns of phrase that a Kenneth Rexroth or Witter Bynner might use rather than gloat on their mistakes. For him, infelicity of expression was a far greater sin than inaccuracy in translation. Gradually it dawned on me, having a good understanding of a poem is quite a different kettle of fish from re-creating it in another language. Watson took for granted that specialists, including graduate students, understood the texts being studied. That wasn’t the problem, he said: “Lots know Chinese or Japanese well; few know English.”

Once we suggested that the class meet at an inn in the countryside a few miles from Palo Alto. It had a patio, a large tree, and a surprisingly green (for California) rolling lawn that dipped into a hollow. The class (what? maybe six of us) sat on chairs under the tree and discussed the day’s readings. A cat jumped on Watson’s lap, making itself at home. Now, I have seen dozens of people interact with cats, but never someone with such naturalness, such utter quiet; he was at one with the animal.

Watson was the kind of person students felt comfortable inviting to student gatherings. A group came to my place once, where the conversation was relaxed. A few days later, something from the evening came up and he made a comment that struck me by its perceptiveness. I couldn’t help asking myself: “How had I missed that? I’d been there, too, and heard the exact same words. He had no special entrée.” Then it occurred to me. He was a better listener. He was attuned not only to the words, but also especially to tone and gesture; he was more interested in absorbing—while participating and enjoying—than in impressing.As a New Yorker in Palo Alto, Watson got around on a bicycle or walked. Going home from a gathering one night, he was stopped by the police. Clearly, no one should be on the streets of Palo Alto at such an hour. His colleagues at Stanford—the McCulloughs, Ed Seidensticker, Bob Brower, and the department chair Pat Hanan—all wanted him to stay. But he was a New Yorker, one who lived much in Kyoto and Tokyo. While in California, the temporary transplant found respite in San Francisco, where he spent weekends. The mecca was post-Beat, but still thriving, and a wonderful place to walk—also, it was more congenial to his elusive personal lifestyle.

Already when I first knew him, Watson had published much. I commented on the royalties he must be taking in. He patiently explained that the volumes for the “Translations of the Asian Classics” series by Columbia University Press were royalty-free; any profits were plowed back into the series. Of course, he did freelance work for pay. And he was to be reimbursed by Kodansha and the Soka Gakkai for translations. (But his name does not appear on Hisamatsu Sen’ichi, Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Literature, which, he later confirmed for me, he had translated.) He received a subvention for his Yoshikawa Kōjirō book-translation. But as a deshi of the great scholar, whenever English was needed at Kyōdai or the Jinbun in Kyoto, they send him the material, often with a tight deadline: for example, for English-language summaries of Chūgoku bungaku hō articles.

That Watson was so prolific aroused the suspicion, and envy, of colleagues. To translate huge chunks of the Shiji with little or no annotation was unheard of at the time. It was supposed to take decades. Immediately, errors were found. (Surprise! In more than one thousand pages of text there actually were errors.) They would be pointed out, with glee or contempt. And if any alternative rendering was offered (most criticized, but did not expose themselves by offering an alternative rendering), more often than not it galomphed along as prose. I personally heard Achilles Fang exclaim, “There should be an Act of Congress to stop Burton Watson.” Fang was a great scholar; but unfortunately, he published little.

The rap on Watson was that he used Japanese renditions of difficult Chinese texts as a crib, translating from them. This overlooked several things. For one, the Japanese (as I was to learn myself over the years) is often harder to understand than the Chinese. Second, Japanese scholars usually do their homework well, citing and drawing upon vast amounts of earlier schol­arship in Chinese and Japanese that other scholars (not infrequently, the very Chinese or West­erners who criticize them) have not taken into account. Third, Watson engaged with Chinese scholarship, but his use of Japanese provided a convenient stick to beat him with; worse, it pointed up the weakness (and incompetence) of those unable and unwilling to learn from it themselves. Fourth and most revealing, most of Watson’s critics were deaf and blind to the aptness of the English of his renderings. In my experience, the patronizing attitude and backhanded compliments towards him (that one still occasionally encounters, but less frequently than thirty years ago) invariably tell more about those making them than the supposed subject of attention.

One disadvantage of Watson’s skill at writing so well is that his own essays read so smoothly, so naturally, that it is easy to miss how much is being communicated. I came to realize this when assigning students his introductions to texts and his Chinese Lyricism book. Students would sail right through; but they had to be quizzed (and encouraged to reread the material) to realize just how much was embedded there.

Watson avoided conferences. The annual meeting of the American Oriental Society, Western Branch—a small group—was held in Palo Alto the year we were there, but he did not attend. I can only guess why: scholars’ masks, the tone of some exchanges, the careerism of many, the phoney bonhomie of a few.

I visited and stayed briefly at the house Burt rented in Kyoto and the apartment he had in Wakayama for a year. His routine was to work a few hours every day, take walks, and go to a bar at night. Going with him two or three times, I noted he was treated as a regular. His natural disposition to meld into his surroundings worked to his advantage; he was the opposite of the gaijin showing off his/her Japanese. My memorable first ride on a Kyoto trolley was heading back from a bar with him.

Watson helped those who sent him material by reading it and sending along comments. He was surprised to find that, after writing and sending along several pages, some never wrote back even to say thank you. With a translation of mine, he cautioned not to stay too wedded to the original; and one locution I used, he said, made him “cringe.” His comments were invariably helpful, but too pointed for the faint-hearted.

When I last saw Burt in 2009, we met for coffee near the Akamon (Red Gate) in front of Tōdai. First thing he said, he wanted “to hear all the gossip.” I told him I’m poorly connected for that; but we knew enough people in common to make it interesting. As always, he was busy with a book project. By that time, with considerable reluctance he had gotten a computer; there was no place to get his typewriter fixed. He suggested meeting again, so we did, and that too was pleasant. I asked him about Jacques Barzun at Columbia (then already more than a hundred years old), since I was reading his huge history of Western civilization; he told me the good experience he’d had with Barzun as one of the members of his doctoral committee. The few asides he made about other people at Columbia were also interesting and revealing.

Years earlier I had wanted to recommend Burt for an honorary doctorate at my university: a way to honor him and to give our East Asia program some exposure. He would have none of it! But in 2006 I dedicated a book to him. He told me it was the first, but he didn’t recall that Bill Nienhauser had dedicated one to him in 2002. In any case, I had the publisher airmail a copy to him. I didn’t want him, already eighty, to die on me without ever having known about or seen it. It is good to see he was to live another eleven years.

April 19, 2017

www.JohnTimothyWixted.com

Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.

Hazard & Wallwork’s Cold Mountain Documentary

In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. In line with such remembrances, I am posting the documentary Cold Mountain: Han Shan, directed by Deb Wallwork and Mike Hazard, a film portrait of the Tang Dynasty poet Han Shan 寒山, a/k/a Cold Mountain, recorded on location in China, the US, and Japan, with interviews with Burton Watson, Red Pine, and Gary Snyder.

Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.