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.