Sam Hamill 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 poem is by Sam Hamill, his entry in Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015):

Salutation to Burton Watson

So very much learned
from the feet of a master—
the fall of the Ch’in,
the rise of the T’ang and Sung,
tales from Masters Chuang and K’ung.

The long dusty roads
of the various poets
and monks, and sutras
chanted, the sake cups filled
with kinship and harmonies,

Hardships remembered.
It is December, the moon
full, snow turned to ice
on the frozen ground. I raise
a cup of good Nihonshu

To a master, a
lifetime’s companionship in
wandering borders.
Through hard times and good, decade
by decade, when my heart yearned

For good company,
I always knew where to turn.
Tonight, just a cup
below Li Po’s cold clear moon—
because it is impossible
to drink alone.

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

John Bradley 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 John Bradley, from his review of Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015), originally published in Rain Taxi #81 (21.1, Spring 2016):

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

This famous poem by Chinese poet Wang Wei displays the craft not only of the author but also—we all too often forget—of the translator. Burton Watson translated this poem with such craft that some may say “That’s it?” as indeed a student of Lucas Klein’s did, as he relates in his essay “Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson,” one of the offerings in this festschrift.

Watson certainly deserves acclaim for the quality and the breadth of his Asian translators. His works are much too long to list here, but a few titles will give an idea of his productivity: Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, and the Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. These are just a fraction of his translations from classical Chinese works. Some of his translation from classical and modern Japanese literature include: From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry (collaborating with Hiroaki Sato), Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, and Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home.

Salutations offers seventeen contributions, each by a different writer, with some of the texts consisting of scholarly papers on Asian literature, and others offering personal reminiscences of Burton Watson or poems dedicated to him. The scholarly papers cover such topics as “a cultural history of Wenren,” which, as Victor H. Mair and Timothy Clifford explain, refers to a “literary man” (22). While these papers would have interest to Asian scholars, for the non-specialist the personal memories of encounters with Burton Watson are more engaging.

… Perhaps the best remedy will be to turn to one of Burton Watson’s many Asian translations and savor his skill.

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

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.

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

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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.


Asia Society Hongkong Launch of Ouyang Jianghe’s Phoenix

August 8: Evening Poetry Reading and Discussion

Drinks Reception at 6:30 pm
Reading & Discussion at 7:00 pm
Close at 8:00 pm
Asia Society Hongkong

Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 will read from his ekphrastic mini-epic Phoenix 凤凰, with poet Nicolas Wong reading Austin Woerner’s English translation. A discussion on the relationship between Ouyang’s writing and its inspiration in the sculpture by Xu Bing 徐冰 will follow.

From Woerner’s preface to the translation:

The poem multiplies the complexity of his earlier poems; it is, by his own account, his magnum opus. Synthesizing his earlier concerns of the materiality of language, the Chinese literary legacy, and the role of art in society into a sustained meditation on the theme of flight, it reflects two and a half decades of work refining the “obscure” language of Misty poetry into a vessel for sophisticated philosophical inquiry. The poem, written by Ouyang in 2010 after a silence of almost two decades, is the culmination of his experiment, where in the eighties and nineties he produced a body of poems distinguished by their length, technical intricacy, and high degree of abstraction. He has, in his recent work, taken this project to a new level, writing book-length poems of densely interlinked stanzas rife with wordplay, a fugue-like development of motifs, and the technique of argument by paradox — known in Chinese as beilun (悖論) — employed by the philosopher Zhuangzi (莊子) to capture the illogical logic of Daoism.

Click the image above for further event information and free registration.

The Complete Sino-Platonic Papers for Free

The entire run of Sino-Platonic Papers are now available for free download, including Jiaosheng Wang’s translations of The Complete Ci-Poems of Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1989), David McCraw’s Pursuing Zhuangzi as a Rhymester (1995), and Jonathan Ratcliffe on “The Mythos of the One-Eyed Man in Greek and Inner Asian Thought” (2014). From Victor Mair:

Sino-Platonic Papers began in 1986 and for its first twenty years remained a print publication.

In 2006, however, Sino-Platonic Papers became an electronic publication, with all new issues released on the Web for free. Since that time we have been gradually converting the print issues to PDFs so that they could also be made available for free to readers around the world. We are very pleased to announce that process is now complete–Two hundred and forty-nine and counting!

All issues of Sino-Platonic Papers are now available for free at

We continue to publish new material, so check our website often to find our latest issues.

Victor Mair

Notes on the Mosquito Reviewed at Quarterly Conversation

Eleanor Goodman’s excellent review of my translation of Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan is now up at Quarterly Conversation. Here’s how it begins:

In the fourteen-page Author’s Afterward to his Selected Poems, Xi Chuan references or quotes from Tolstoy, Yang Lian, the Zhuangzi, the Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy, Eileen Chang, Leo Strauss, C.T. Hsia, Jonathan Spence, Milan Kundera, Li Bai, Czeslaw Milosz, the 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, ancient philosopher Han Feizi, Mao Zedong, Foucault, Tang dynasty literati Han Yu, and Goethe. This is not a poet who can be accused of parochialism. Yet Xi Chuan wears his erudition lightly, at least in the context of his verse. This is not to say that the poems do not give a sense of a formidable intellect behind them—they do—but what is striking in the poems is less Xi Chuan’s breadth of reference than his sense of humor, his humanity, and his attention to the smallest details of ordinary life, ranging from bodily functions to rats to the way drizzle soaks through socks.

Click the icon above to read the whole review.

Bookslut Reviews Notes on the Mosquito

BookslutThe online literary journal Bookslut has posted Greer Mansfield’s excellent review of my translation of Xi Chuan titled “Notes on Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems.” Here’s an excerpt:

Xi Chuan has translated Borges and even written a poem about him, but these prose poems bring to mind another great Argentine: Julio Cortazar in quizzical sketches like Cronopios and Famas.

His poems also bring to mind the Western modernists: urban surrealism, clear images expressed in laconic language, black humor, and dialogues with the dead. But one also thinks of the classical Chinese poets: atmospheres and experiences captured in a few words, a slight shift in mood (a change in the weather, the sight of an inscription on a tree) evoking entire worlds … One also thinks of a Chinese wisdom writer as great as Zhuangzi. Xi Chuan has a similarly playful and puzzling mind, embracing the bafflement and ambiguity of the world. Zhuangzi himself makes an appearance in these poems, as do other luminaries of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history: the “grand historian” Sima Qian, the satirical poet Sima Xiangru, the poets of the Tang Dynasty, and even Confucius. These presences are as much a part of Xi Chuan’s landscape as Beijing’s streets, the South Xinjiang mountains, or the huge Chinese plains.

Click here for the whole review!

Chris Livaccari on Overcoming Misconceptions about China posted an interview with Chris Livaccari of the Asia Society (New York) with a guided reading list of how to overcome misconceptions about China. Here’s how he begins his responses:

I recently asked some school kids, “If you had the opportunity to go to China today, what do you think you would see?” One of the students said there would be a lot of lanterns everywhere, a lot of red, and a lot of dragons. I thought, “Wow. If this kid stepped into Shanghai in 2012, he would really be bowled over.”

The books he mentions are Robert Ramsey’s The Languages of China, Joanna Waley-Cohen’s The Sextants of Beijing, Zhuangzi 莊子 as translated by Victor Mair (called Wandering on the Way), the stories of Lu Xun 魯迅 (the article links to William Lyell’s translations), and The Story of the Stone 石頭記 by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 and translated by David Hawkes and John Minford. Not surprisingly, his list contains no poetry. Perhaps one day somebody will compile a list like this and Xi Chuan will be on it.