John Timothy Wixted 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 John Timothy Wixted, translator and professor emeritus at Arizona State University:

“Remembering Burton Watson”

Tim Wixted

Harbert, Michigan

I first knew Burton Watson in 1965-66, as an M.A. student at Stanford when he was a visiting professor. He taught a Chinese poetry course which started with the “Nineteen Old Poems” of the Han. Another graduate student and I, unbidden, would bring available translations to class and read them aloud at the end of the discussion of each poem. We students would pounce on errors in translation. Watson’s approach was different. He listened intently to the rhythms and turns of phrase that a Kenneth Rexroth or Witter Bynner might use rather than gloat on their mistakes. For him, infelicity of expression was a far greater sin than inaccuracy in translation. Gradually it dawned on me, having a good understanding of a poem is quite a different kettle of fish from re-creating it in another language. Watson took for granted that specialists, including graduate students, understood the texts being studied. That wasn’t the problem, he said: “Lots know Chinese or Japanese well; few know English.”

Once we suggested that the class meet at an inn in the countryside a few miles from Palo Alto. It had a patio, a large tree, and a surprisingly green (for California) rolling lawn that dipped into a hollow. The class (what? maybe six of us) sat on chairs under the tree and discussed the day’s readings. A cat jumped on Watson’s lap, making itself at home. Now, I have seen dozens of people interact with cats, but never someone with such naturalness, such utter quiet; he was at one with the animal.

Watson was the kind of person students felt comfortable inviting to student gatherings. A group came to my place once, where the conversation was relaxed. A few days later, something from the evening came up and he made a comment that struck me by its perceptiveness. I couldn’t help asking myself: “How had I missed that? I’d been there, too, and heard the exact same words. He had no special entrée.” Then it occurred to me. He was a better listener. He was attuned not only to the words, but also especially to tone and gesture; he was more interested in absorbing—while participating and enjoying—than in impressing.As a New Yorker in Palo Alto, Watson got around on a bicycle or walked. Going home from a gathering one night, he was stopped by the police. Clearly, no one should be on the streets of Palo Alto at such an hour. His colleagues at Stanford—the McCulloughs, Ed Seidensticker, Bob Brower, and the department chair Pat Hanan—all wanted him to stay. But he was a New Yorker, one who lived much in Kyoto and Tokyo. While in California, the temporary transplant found respite in San Francisco, where he spent weekends. The mecca was post-Beat, but still thriving, and a wonderful place to walk—also, it was more congenial to his elusive personal lifestyle.

Already when I first knew him, Watson had published much. I commented on the royalties he must be taking in. He patiently explained that the volumes for the “Translations of the Asian Classics” series by Columbia University Press were royalty-free; any profits were plowed back into the series. Of course, he did freelance work for pay. And he was to be reimbursed by Kodansha and the Soka Gakkai for translations. (But his name does not appear on Hisamatsu Sen’ichi, Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Literature, which, he later confirmed for me, he had translated.) He received a subvention for his Yoshikawa Kōjirō book-translation. But as a deshi of the great scholar, whenever English was needed at Kyōdai or the Jinbun in Kyoto, they send him the material, often with a tight deadline: for example, for English-language summaries of Chūgoku bungaku hō articles.

That Watson was so prolific aroused the suspicion, and envy, of colleagues. To translate huge chunks of the Shiji with little or no annotation was unheard of at the time. It was supposed to take decades. Immediately, errors were found. (Surprise! In more than one thousand pages of text there actually were errors.) They would be pointed out, with glee or contempt. And if any alternative rendering was offered (most criticized, but did not expose themselves by offering an alternative rendering), more often than not it galomphed along as prose. I personally heard Achilles Fang exclaim, “There should be an Act of Congress to stop Burton Watson.” Fang was a great scholar; but unfortunately, he published little.

The rap on Watson was that he used Japanese renditions of difficult Chinese texts as a crib, translating from them. This overlooked several things. For one, the Japanese (as I was to learn myself over the years) is often harder to understand than the Chinese. Second, Japanese scholars usually do their homework well, citing and drawing upon vast amounts of earlier schol­arship in Chinese and Japanese that other scholars (not infrequently, the very Chinese or West­erners who criticize them) have not taken into account. Third, Watson engaged with Chinese scholarship, but his use of Japanese provided a convenient stick to beat him with; worse, it pointed up the weakness (and incompetence) of those unable and unwilling to learn from it themselves. Fourth and most revealing, most of Watson’s critics were deaf and blind to the aptness of the English of his renderings. In my experience, the patronizing attitude and backhanded compliments towards him (that one still occasionally encounters, but less frequently than thirty years ago) invariably tell more about those making them than the supposed subject of attention.

One disadvantage of Watson’s skill at writing so well is that his own essays read so smoothly, so naturally, that it is easy to miss how much is being communicated. I came to realize this when assigning students his introductions to texts and his Chinese Lyricism book. Students would sail right through; but they had to be quizzed (and encouraged to reread the material) to realize just how much was embedded there.

Watson avoided conferences. The annual meeting of the American Oriental Society, Western Branch—a small group—was held in Palo Alto the year we were there, but he did not attend. I can only guess why: scholars’ masks, the tone of some exchanges, the careerism of many, the phoney bonhomie of a few.

I visited and stayed briefly at the house Burt rented in Kyoto and the apartment he had in Wakayama for a year. His routine was to work a few hours every day, take walks, and go to a bar at night. Going with him two or three times, I noted he was treated as a regular. His natural disposition to meld into his surroundings worked to his advantage; he was the opposite of the gaijin showing off his/her Japanese. My memorable first ride on a Kyoto trolley was heading back from a bar with him.

Watson helped those who sent him material by reading it and sending along comments. He was surprised to find that, after writing and sending along several pages, some never wrote back even to say thank you. With a translation of mine, he cautioned not to stay too wedded to the original; and one locution I used, he said, made him “cringe.” His comments were invariably helpful, but too pointed for the faint-hearted.

When I last saw Burt in 2009, we met for coffee near the Akamon (Red Gate) in front of Tōdai. First thing he said, he wanted “to hear all the gossip.” I told him I’m poorly connected for that; but we knew enough people in common to make it interesting. As always, he was busy with a book project. By that time, with considerable reluctance he had gotten a computer; there was no place to get his typewriter fixed. He suggested meeting again, so we did, and that too was pleasant. I asked him about Jacques Barzun at Columbia (then already more than a hundred years old), since I was reading his huge history of Western civilization; he told me the good experience he’d had with Barzun as one of the members of his doctoral committee. The few asides he made about other people at Columbia were also interesting and revealing.

Years earlier I had wanted to recommend Burt for an honorary doctorate at my university: a way to honor him and to give our East Asia program some exposure. He would have none of it! But in 2006 I dedicated a book to him. He told me it was the first, but he didn’t recall that Bill Nienhauser had dedicated one to him in 2002. In any case, I had the publisher airmail a copy to him. I didn’t want him, already eighty, to die on me without ever having known about or seen it. It is good to see he was to live another eleven years.

April 19, 2017

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

Mang Ke in Cha

ImageThe new issue of Cha is here, featuring my translation of three poems by Mang Ke 芒克 from the forthcoming October Dedications (Chinese University & Zephyr)–“Street” 街, “Even After Death We Grow Old” 死后也还会衰老, and “Late Years” 晚年:

we will hope, wishing we could live forever
wishing we were not some animal to be hunted

cooked over open flame, eaten
we will hurt, and oh we won’t be able to bear it

the white hair of the dead grows from the ground
which makes me believe: even after death we grow old





The issue also includes poetry by Andrea Lingenfelter, DeWitt Clinton adaptating Kenneth Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Chinese, Karen An-hwei Lee, and more. Click the image above for the link.


Yi-Fen Chou, the Welfare Queen of American Poetry

reganBecause it’s broadly related to Chinese poetry as understood in English, I wrote something about the recent Best American Poetry controversy, published at Drunken Boat, titled “Yi-Fen Chou: Michael Derrick Hudson and/or Ronald Reagan.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is a translation of a poem by medieval Chinese poet Li Bai 李白, and was part of the redefinition of Chinese poetry and Chinese culture in English in the early twentieth century. The Love Poems of Marichiko, presented as translations of young Japanese woman’s poetry but which Rexroth admitted to writing after he was nominated for a translation prize, were an attempt at an imagined empathy with a cultural other, the poems narrating a passion with an unknown lover that dissolves boundaries as the passion dissolves as well. And the Araki Yasusada phenomenon undermined our prevailing notions of authorship to expose and critique the cultural double standards at work in the American poetry industry. Yi-Fen Chou, on the other hand, looks motivated by a desire to take advantage of the prevailing notions of authorship and our double standards in the American poetry industry. And this is why I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan era was when American poetry of all stripes turned inward, as if mirroring not only the government’s xenophobia, but its configuring of trade into a neo-liberal assertion of American dominance, now called globalization. Not that American foreign policy before Reagan had been anything to be proud of, but poets had responded to the Vietnam War by translating more (as they would in the Bush II era, reacting against war by increasing their curiosity about the outside world); in the years afterward the Me Decade took over American poetry, as well, and American poets wrote best about their own personal me. Hudson says “he did briefly consider trying to make Yi-Fen into a ‘persona’ or ‘heteronym’ à la Fernando Pessoa, but nothing ever came of it.” That, at least, would have been interesting, and related his pseudonym to his poetry. As is, both his lack of interest in engaging with the culture he names and his use of a minority name to get published make him the poetic equivalent of the domestic and international policies of the Reagan presidency.

Click the image above for the full piece.

Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River Reviewed

crossingyellowriverJohn Bradley has reviewed Sam Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (Tiger Bark Press) at Rain Taxi. He writes:

What is about Chinese poetry, especially the poetry of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE), that has drawn so many translators over the years, such as Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Bill Porter, to name only a few? … Li Po’s “Questions Answered” offers a good example of that “depth and clarity and delicacy”:

You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,

and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.

The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.

I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.

Click the image for the full review.

New Directions New Homepage

New Directions has updated their website’s homepage, with my translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito making the display, right between a new collection of Kenneth Rexroth’s writings, Thomas Merton On Eastern Meditation, and Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Roberto Bolaño‘s first novel.

New Directions May 2012 Newsletter

New Directions PublishingThe May 2012 newsletter is out from New Directions, with links and news about events, readings, and new publications, including celebrations of Kenneth Rexroth in Corte Madera and San Francisco, Nathaniel Tarn reading in Chicago and Ann Arbor, and a new book by by Robert Walser translated by Christopher Middleton with Susan Bernofsky, and of course Xi Chuan.

Ocean of Poetry

Xi Chuan on Tagore and Modern Chinese Poetry

In honor of the recently-concluded India-China Writers Dialogues, here’s a re-post from October 7, in the earliest days of the Notes on the Mosquito blog:

I just came across the following video, a lecture by Xi Chuan in English from Spring, 2009, to the Columbia University Alumni Association in Beijing. He discusses the relationship between Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 and Rabindranath Tagore in the context of China, India, and the West and their impact on modern Chinese poetry (with honorable mentions of Kenneth Rexroth, Amy Lowell, and Ezra Pound). He ends with a reading of the poem “My Grandma” 我奶奶 in Chinese, with my English translation read by Austin Woerner.

(apologies to readers in the PRC; I was unable to locate the video on Youku)

Ashbery and / or Xi Chuan

I’ve been reading, and reading about, John Ashbery recently, in part because translating Xi Chuan has put me in mind to look at the development of the prose poem in English–and Ashbery’s Three Poems (Viking Compass, 1972), of course, were fundamental in the expansion & popularization of that form–but also because Ashbery’s recently published translation of Arthur Rimbaud‘s Illuminations (Norton, 2011) have just come out, as Steve Bradbury mentioned on this blog in his write-up of the ALTA conference, and I’ve been curious about the relationship between original writing & translation in this writer (also, the model of Ashbery as a writer loved both on the margins and at the peripheries of the literary world seemed appropriate for Xi Chuan, a poet who is at once accessible and experimental, challenging and rewarding).

So I consider it a fine coincidence that I came across the following quote, which struck me as the positive version of Christopher Honey’s question of “who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation,” in Micah Towery‘s essay at The The on how “Google Translates Poetry“:

why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud.

The second motivation, accurate as it is, only emerges when we’re dealing with the confluence of two established figures–Rexroth and Du Fu, say, or Ashbery and Rimbaud, or Kenneth Branagh and Hamlet. This does not mean that Google translate is any better for readers who want to read Rimbaud without learning French, but it does mean that, if I think few readers will be interested in reading me reading Xi Chuan, my choices may be different if I’m translating primarily so readers can read Xi Chuan without having to know Chinese.

As Xi Chuan said in an interview with the NEA, “Before I had an ‘I’ in my heart; later I found [that it was multiple] ‘I’s’ and not ‘we.’ I found that all these deceased people live in my heart.” As his translator, my goal has been to express these “I’s” of his–and perhaps find my own amongst them–rather than to subsume any of them into an “I” of my own.

Review of Push Open the Window

Over at The Rumpus, Christopher Honey has a review of Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China. It’s not a perfect review, in my mind–he doesn’t acknowledge the translators by name–but he does raise some interesting issues and questions. Here are a few I found worth considering (which is not to say agreeing with):

From my own personal experience, I always wonder who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation. Am I reading Tu Fu or am I actually reading Rexroth?

The quality and sophistication of the poets seems to go up as the poets get younger and younger. The earliest poets have a sort of untutored enthusiasm – almost like naïve art – touched by the political.

I do not believe I am going out on a limb by saying that the more recent poets in Push Open the Window are much more fully connected to the larger literary world. As barriers to the rest of the world have dropped, poets have benefitted by cross pollination with other traditions.

The number of translators also led to another potential issue. A single translator would have enabled a more accurate understanding of the development and changes within Chinese poetry over the last fifty years. With so many different translators, how can one be sure that a perceived, new rhetorical addition to the bag of tricks available to Chinese poets isn’t just a tic of one translator as opposed to another?

It is hard to escape seeing it a sort of historical or sociological document on the evolution of literary schema rather than as a work of literature. What is more, with the variations in the quality of the poems, I find it hard to believe that historical thinking was not a factor in the selection process – that this book was intended to document the progress of literary evolution and not just to provide the best literary products.