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.