Jeffrey Yang 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 Jeffrey Yang, poet, translator, and editor at New York Review Books and New Directions:

For me, Burton Watson exists as an emanation of one of the five Dainichi Nyorai, specifically Ashuku Nyorai, residing east of the Diamond Realm, manifesting enlightenment through his translations, which reflect the fluidity of water and mirror-like wisdom, exciting the blood with their earth-touching music. I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet him in the flesh. His presence assumed more ethereal proportions in my mind, expanding and evolving with each new book of his I read. His selection of Su Tung-p‘o poems served as a direct model for my first translation, East Slope, that I worked on in graduate school. His Chuang Tzu I found in a discarded box of books in the English Department and have kept near me ever since, along with his translations of Kumarajiva’s version of the Vimalakirti Sutra and Sima Qian’s Records. I’ve long taken to heart that in his book of fu rhyme-prose he turned to the art of the sports announcer for primary inspiration. Most recently I’ve been reading his marvelous Record of Miraculous Events, translations of the setsuwa genre of anecdotal “spoken stories,” again setting a standard for what a classical text can be (i.e. karmically relevant, entertaining, filled with miracles). With awe and reverence one looks at all the books he’s published over the decades, knowing that the breadth and depth of his classical devotions is matched by that rare quality of consistent worth—nothing rushed, every line turned over and over in the mind. Master Watson’s work can be summed up in the three incidental words Milton used to describe Poetry and upon which Coleridge based all his dicta on the subject: “simple, sensuous, passionate.” No wonder his secret to translating classical Chinese poetry was never a secret: Read as much contemporary American poetry as possible, for that is the idiom he chose to translate into.

In his presence, I recite this verse of praise from his Vimalakirti:

Free of worldly attachments, like the lotus blossom,
constantly you move within the realm of emptiness and quiet;
you have mastered the marks of all phenomena, no blocks or hindrances;
like the sky, you lean on nothing—we bow our heads!

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

Jesse Glass 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 by Jesse Glass, adapted from his entry in Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015), which he edited with Philip Williams:

When I made my exit from America I threw a party: poets, painters, cabaret singers, gallery owners, teachers, philosophers of the street, strangers and passersby looking for a bargain, everyone was welcome. Somehow I had managed to shake free from everything and everyone I thought I loved, reduced my worldly goods to a suitcase and a few boxes in friends’ attics, and it was time to make my way to Japan the very next morning. But first we’d have a party: I’d play a record on my little black plastic machine, then give it away, and by the end of the night I gave the record player away too; I made sure my suits, my hats, my ties, some paintings, a Haitian deity in repousse steel, went walking out the door. My 1928 Underwood typewriter grew unsteady legs too after we’d typed dozens of drunken, communal, but surprisingly dry-eyed verses. I remember we’d all staggered down to the Milwaukee river an hour or two before sunrise, laughing at the lights reflected lights, at the trees and at the few cold stars left in the sky. I was poorer and happier than I had been in a long time and I was not afraid. I kept referring in my mind to the one book I did not give away but would take with me on the plane, and keep with me through the coming years in countryside Japan, in south China, in Korea and in Japan again: the book told me of trees that were useless, and best that way, and of a butcher who never needed to sharpen his knife, and of a giant bird and a vast fish that divided the waters of the deep beyond the skill of anyone to catch, and a skull existing in a perpetual dream of autumn, and of an unbearably ugly man who for some reason proved so attractive that everyone wanted to be near him and even princesses would fight to be his mistress, and of butterflies dreaming they were philosophers and philosophers dreaming they were butterflies. These stories nourished and consoled me then as they do even now. After many years, when I finally met the gentleman who gave me those precious stories, wrestling them expertly from the ancient Chinese into memorable English, I showed him the dog-eared, coffee-stained, annotated, and deeply decrepit pages and he wrote on the fly-leaf of Chuang Tzu; Basic Writings: “ October 22, 2005/ For Jesse Glass, / In appreciation of a well-read copy, Burton”.

Due to the incredible generosity of Burton Watson with his gifts we all have been given a key to the intellectual riches of a part of the world that is just as crucial to the collective future of humanity as it is to its past. The stories, the poems, the teachings of great sages and the epic histories that Burton Watson has given us, both directly in his superb translations from the Chinese and the Japanese, and indirectly through his role as teacher and exemplar to dozens of other scholars, translators, poets, writers, and artists, continue to unpack their treasures. No, Burton, the appreciation, the pleasure, has been ours as well. Please accept this small gift from us, sensei.

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

Victor Mair 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 Victor Mair, professor of Chinese at University of Pennsylvania:

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 accomplishments. Yet think of all that he has 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.

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

Burton Watson, 1925 – 2017

https://i1.wp.com/xichuanpoetry.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/A41A6373-2.jpg?resize=229%2C307Burton 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.

Click on the image for the full article.

Mazanec on Rouzer’s Hanshan Translations

Tom Mazanec has posted about Paul Rouzer’s new translation of Hanshan 寒山 (Cold Mountain) for de Gruyter’s Library of Chinese Humanities–now available for sale and free download.

As Tom notes, some of the Hanshan corpus was “famously translated by Gary Snyder in 1958 [and] later celebrated by Jack Kerouac in his hit novel The Dharma Bums,” which means this publication lacks the punch de Gruyter landed when publishing Stephen Owen’s complete Du Fu 杜甫:

there are already two complete translations of Hanshan out there, by Robert Henricks and Red Pine (personally, I’m fond of the latter), as well as multiple partial translations by such prominent translators as Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, Peter Hobson and T. H. Barrett, J. P. Seaton, and doubtless others. A close reading will show how these translations each contribute something different to our understanding of this poetic corpus, and this in itself is helpful for teaching and understanding Tang poetry.

Worth noting, though, is that Rouzer’s book also includes poems attributed to Hanshan’s companions, Shide 拾得 and Fenggan 豐干. At any rate,

It’s always good to have more translations of Tang poetry in other languages, and especially translations by someone as knowledgeable as Paul Rouzer … He’s a sensitive reader and a smooth writer, and I’m sure his translations are wonderful (I’ve yet to go through them with a close eye).

Tom also notes the forthcoming titles in the Library of Chinese Humanities, Robert Ashmore’s Li He 李賀 and Stephen Owen and Wendy Swartz’s translation of Ruan Ji  阮籍 and Xi Kang 嵇康.

Click the image above for the full write-up.

Weinberger on Hinton’s and Minford’s versions of the I Ching

‘An Ancient Chinese Poet’; colored engraving of an original Chinese scrollEliot Weinberger writes about two new translations of the I Ching (Yijing) 易經 in the NYRB:

The two latest translations of the I Ching couldn’t be more unalike; they are a complementary yin and yang of approaches. John Minford is a scholar best known for his work on the magnificent five-volume translation of The Story of the Stone … His I Ching, obviously the result of many years of study, is over eight hundred pages long, much of it in small type, and encyclopedic … It is a tour de force of erudition, almost a microcosm of Chinese civilization, much as the I Ching itself was traditionally seen.

David Hinton is, with Arthur Waley and Burton Watson, the rare example of a literary Sinologist—that is, a classical scholar thoroughly conversant with, and connected to, contemporary literature in English … Hinton’s I Ching is equally inventive. It is quite short, with only two pages allotted to each hexagram … Rather than consulted, it is meant to be read cover to cover, like a book of modern poetry—though it should be quickly said that this is very much a translation, and not an “imitation” or a postmodern elaboration.

And here’s how it ends:

One could say that the I Ching is a mirror of one’s own concerns or expectations. But it’s like one of the bronze mirrors from the Shang dynasty, now covered in a dark blue-green patina so that it doesn’t reflect at all … In the I Ching, the same word means both “war prisoner” and “sincerity.” There is no book that has gone through as many changes as the Book of Change.

Click the image above to link to the article.

Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson

Edited by Jesse Glass and Philip Williams, this collection of essays, articles, and poems about Chinese and Japanese literature and culture celebrates the illustrious scholarly career of Burton Watson, whose range of excellent literary translations into English from Japanese and classical Chinese is second to none. Over half of the book’s seventeen chapters are articles about Chinese or Japanese literature and culture with full scholarly apparatus; the remainder are tributes to Watson in the form of poetry or informal essays.

Topics include analysis of Watson’s skills as a translator and practical critic; a cultural history of Chinese literati; masterpieces of the Ming essayist Zhang Dai; revisiting David Hawkes’ interpretations of Du Fu’s poetry; China’s earliest science fiction from the late Qing; reflections on cultural change by the early Yuan Confucianist Hao Jing; the multi-dimensional symbolism in Hagiwara Sakutarô’s poetry; the fictional portrayal of a self-sacrificing female Chinese Buddhist saint; key patterns of arboreal imagery in the 300 Tang Poems anthology; and Japanese linked verse across the centuries.

Featuring contributions by Victor Mair, Robert Hegel, Hiroaki Sato, William Nienhauser, Jonathan Chaves, Lucas Klein, Hoyt Tillman, Yenna Wu, Yoko Danno, Hua Li, Duncan Campbell, Stephen Addiss, Robert Epp, Timothy Clifford, Philip Rowland, Sam Hamill, and Gary Snyder.

Click on the image for ordering information.

Burton Watson Named PEN/Ralph Manheim Medalist for Lifetime Achievement in Translation

A41A6373 (2)

It is with great pleasure that PEN America announces today that the 2015 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation will be awarded to scholar and translator of Chinese and Japanese literature Burton Watson. One of PEN’s most prestigious lifetime achievement awards, the medal is given every three years to a translator whose career has demonstrated a commitment to excellence through the body of his or her work, and has been previously awarded to such distinguished translators as Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, and Edmund Keeley, among others.

The winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal is chosen by the members of the PEN America Translation Committee, who are dedicated to highlighting the art of literary translation and advocating on behalf of translators. As the committee’s citation states, “Burton Watson is the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time.” Among other writers, Watson has translated the works of Chuang Tzu, Han-shan, Su Tung-P’o, and Po Chü-i.

Credited with making many classical Chinese and Japanese works accessible to the English-reading public for the first time, Watson’s translations also span a wide array of genres, from poetry and prose to histories and sacred texts. The committee citation continues, “For decades his anthologies and his scholarly introductions have defined classical East Asian literature for students and readers in North America, and we have reason to expect more: even at his advanced age, he still translates nearly daily.”

In 1982, Watson was a recipient of the PEN Translation Prize for his translation of From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Hiroaki Sato (Anchor Press/University of Washington Press) and in 1995 for his translation of Selected Poems of Su Tung–p’o (Copper Canyon). PEN is thrilled to now recognize Watson for his valued and longstanding commitment to the art of translation, bringing great creativity and precision to his work and introducing great works of literature to a wider audience.

Watson will be honored, along with all 2015 PEN award winners, at the PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on June 8 at The New School in New York City.

Click the image for the full citation.

 

Open Letters Monthly Reviews Calligrams Titles

literarymindandthecarvingofdragonsSteve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly reviews three books from the “deservedly popular” Calligrams reprint series from New York Review of Books and Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, devoted to “writings from and on China”: Chinese Rhyme-Prose, translated by Burton Watson with a preface by Lucas Klein; The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons, by Liu Hsieh translated by Vincent Yu-Chung Shih; and The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, by Alfred Döblin translated by C. D. Godwin. Here’s a passage:

Chinese literature has one of the longest histories in the world; Chinese writers and poets and scholars were parsing fine points of rhetoric and prosody long before the Greeks had ever heard the song of Troy, and they were hotly debating critical fine points a millennium before the monks of Ireland wrote their first playful erotica with ice-cold fingers. The outflow has continued almost unabated for three thousand years, with major works spawning minor works and minor works spawning commentaries and the major commentaries spawning commentaries of their own. It’s an immense and frighteningly tangled bookish heritage.

For the full review, click on the image above.