Chloe Garcia Roberts 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 poet and translator Chloe Garcia Roberts:

Burton Watson’s translations were the weft of my education. His voice spanning the entirety of my development as a translator and as a writer, underlying studies in literature, philosophy, history, and culture. However he is not someone I discovered, or searched for, or followed because the result of the regard in which he is held across the disciplines is that his were always the translations first recommended, first suggested, first given. Which is to say his texts were so vital, so true, as to always be present.

From Mr. Watson’s work I learned that the shortest distance between two words of different languages is a straight line. His translations do not wade too much into the hinterlands of implied meaning and subtext but instead utilize the approach of identifying and implementing the core essence of the word, the phrase, the text so that what reads as simple and spare can still reverberate with the plural tones of the original.

From Mr. Watson’s work I learned that translation is a medium through which the original is encountered, and thus it should be transparent. His fingerprints over time I’ve learned to recognize as the meticulous erasure of his presence. Like glass, his translations almost allow the reader to forget her separation. And also, like glass, they have a mass, a hardness, a heft, so that separation once acknowledged can become a pleasure and, for me, an enticement.

From Mr. Watson’s work I learned to love what he did, to long for my own encounters with the texts he led me to. And when I was finally able to bring my Chinese to a level that I could go there on my own, I found that his love became my own. And when I say love I mean the wonder of his reading. And when I say love I mean the reverence of his rendering.

For me Burton Watson was a constant. And somehow, naively, I assumed he would always be so.

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