Burton Watson, the greatest translator of premodern poetry and prose from Chinese and Japanese, passed away on the evening of April 1, 2017, at Hatsutomi Hospital in Kamagata City, Chiba, Japan. He was 91.
I have so far been unable to find an obituary. I am reposting “Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson,” which I wrote for World Literature Today, published in May of 2014.
Ascent and grounding describe as well Watson’s reconciliation of the scholarly and poetic demands of translation: the solidity of his knowledge of classical Chinese finds expression in an English that calls attention to itself primarily in how it barely calls attention to itself. It is an extension of the overall architecture of the regulated verse form, down to the “succession of highly disciplined maneuvers” that define the antithetical parallelism of their middle couplets at their best. Where others have presented poetry and translation as forever at odds, Watson’s work sees this conflict as its own static tableau and reduces it to a productive part of his own translational poetics.
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