Jonathan Chaves 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 remembrance is from Jonathan Chaves, professor of Chinese at George Washington University:

I am deeply saddened by the death of Burton Watson. He has been an inspiration to me as scholar and translator, and he was my mentor and teacher at Columbia University while I was studying for the PhD in Chinese Literature. The translations of Arthur Waley first revealed the riches of Chinese poetry to me, and he and Watson have always been my two supreme exemplars in this field.

Watson was the first person to whom I showed my early translations, and with characteristic understatement, he limited his comments to saying, “You’re doing fine. Just keep on like this.” That was all I needed from him; I knew I could do it after that.

The 2004 edition of my book, Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow is dedicated to Burton Watson.

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

1 thought on “Jonathan Chaves on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

  1. I am a lifelong and best friend of Burton Watson’s nephew, William Dundon. As such, I was often at his home and I was treated as a member of the family, especially given that my own familial situation was fragmented at best. I knew Burton Watson as “Unkie” (I have never had occasion to spell it!), because that’s what William and his siblings all called him. All who knew him considered him a thoughtful and kind person. One Christmas he gave me a book of his translations of the poetry of Po Chü-I which I still have. I always regarded it as a grand example of the sort of writing I love – simple, clear, and elegant. At the time I was, of course, impressed that any Westerner could translate from Chinese at all, but in my youthful ignorance it never occurred to me that the translator imbued his own style into the translation so that it also would take on a degree of impressionistic character as well. I have since come to appreciate that it is not as if there are strict and blunt one-to-one relationships between the English and Chinese words. Now I know that when I read Po Chü-I, I am also reading Unkie, and that deepens my appreciation for the man I grew to love as well as for the fruit of his labors. I was deeply saddened to learn of his passing from William. There went a fine gentleman.

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