Burton Watson is responsible for whatever good has or will come of my own work as a literary translator of Classical Chinese Literature. In 1962, about the time his career was taking off, I was as a senior in college, and along with my new wife (now of fifty-six years, Kathy Paradiso Seaton,) I left the excellent little men’s school Wabash College (where Ezra Pound taught for a little while a couple of generations earlier) so that Kathy could go back to school, and I could begin the study of Chinese language (not available at Wabash at that time). One semester into that project, living sometimes on fifteen dollars a week, I was ready to give up. Aside from Pound and Waley I had found nothing in translation that provided sufficient motivation to get me through the first stages of what was to become one of my favorite bits of weekly exercise, the memorization of new Chinese characters. (For any beginners reading this, it gets much easier and more rewarding the farther you go.) I was about to drop out of Chinese. Then I picked Prof. Watson’s Records of the Grand Historian (the book form of his Columbia dissertation as the book, and Ssu-ma Ch’ien as the historian) for the single term paper that would provide the whole grade for a required one hour historiography credit that actually was to decide whether or not I’d get the fellowship that would put Kathy and me through school. I loved Ssu-ma Ch’ien, I fell in love with Burton Watson and the legend that he’d done the translation while snowed-in all one winter in a cabin somewhere in Minnesota, (don’t tell me it’s not so!) and the professor in my 200-plus student class loved my paper. Of course, Harvard man or not, he’d never heard of Ssu-ma Ch’ien: that was before all but two of Watson’s forty-plus books had appeared. So, I got one of the first twelve of the National Defense Critical Languages’ Fellowships. So, simply put, I stayed with Chinese because of Burton Watson’s earliest translation.
Some time after I got tenure at UNC, Chapel Hill, around ’73, I got up the nerve to write Prof. Watson about a problem I was having with two lines of a quatrain by Tu Fu, and he was kind enough to send me an answer on a postcard… I have a treasured sample of his handwriting, but we had no more contact until after I reviewed his anthology, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: from Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, for the scholarly journal CLEAR. It was a privilege, an honor, to be invited, and a joy to write. I’ve always hated “critics” and have refused to write reviews that were other than appreciations.
In the late ’80 I got the idea for a “translation issue,” a single issue dedicated entirely to translations of poetry from classical Chinese into poetry in the American language for the The Literary Review (pub. by Fairleigh Dickinson University,) where I had the usually honorary title of Advisory Editor. I was communicating a lot… old fashioned letters, OMG!) with the poet and publisher (Copper Canyon) Sam Hamill at the time, and he eventually wrote a nice little essay on the influence of Chinese poetry on 20th. cent. American poets. The scholar-translator Stephen Owen wrote another essay for the issue. Sam Hamill helped me contact several writers I didn’t know about, including the then barely known “Red Pine,” Bill Porter, but my idea was that everybody had to come on board, and I took on Gary Snyder, Jonathan Chaves, and finally, Burton Watson. I took on Watson first of these (to me) “big three,” because I hoped he might know something about my work, and/or he might have seen or at least have been told about my review of his anthology. We also had a couple of acquaintances in common, including, as I recall it, Carolyn Kizer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who’d been writer-in-residence at Carolina during my earlier career, and Kenneth Hanson, the great poet, who taught English and translated Lin Ho-ch’ing and Han Yu at Reed College after studying there with both Kizer and Snyder (or so it seems to my flagging memory). Anyway, Watson’s response was swift, and so sweet, yes I said sweet, that he seemed to sense how difficult it was for an unknown J.P. Seaton to write asking for help with a fairly ridiculously naive or idealistic project. Even though he said in his first response that he didn’t think he had anything I’d want, I was emboldened to ask what he did have: kanshi, or Sino-Japanese, he said (poems written in classical Chinese by Japanese poets), and right now mostly “Dog poems,” as in poems about dogs. The poems he finally sent, all of which were printed in the Spring, 1989 Literary Review (Vol. 32, #3), are printed below.
I suspect that Prof. Watson’s name opened the door for Gary Snyder’s contributions. An original poem by Snyder that I mentioned liking when I wrote to him ended up, greatly appreciated by many readers, as the cover image for the issue, and Chaves, once Watson’s student at Columbia, was the last of more than thirty extremely talented, and well known, translators to join up. As a whole, I’ll claim there’s yet to be an anthology to match it, and I credit Burton Watson for creating the editor, as in me, and for bringing on board well known poet-translators whose presence made it easy for all those folks to come together in one place. I’d asked Walt Cummins, the editor of TLR, to see if he could find money to pay the translators, (fat chance we both thought) but with an NEA grant, Walt and TLR were able to pay twenty dollars per poem, and Prof. Watson got $160 to grace our pages with his work. I’ve never gotten paid anywhere else, other than for books, for a translation, and another of the translators wrote me the same thing. At the time I figured the few dollars wouldn’t be much but a gesture to most of the established folks who offered their work. I remember that Ursula Le Guin’s agent couldn’t even figure out where the little check meant for her actually came from, for six early versions from the Tao Te Ching that she later used in her version, published by Shambhala.
In 1990 it was my great good luck to be invited to write a cover blurb (behind Gary Snyder, of course, and the Zen man Richard Aitken), for the lovely little book of Watson’s mostly autobiographical essays, The Rainbow World, published by the wonderful and sadly short-lived Broken Moon Press. I didn’t know anything about Burton Watson the man until I read this great little book. It’s offered for sale by several book sellers on-line today. I advise anyone who’s interested in Watson the man, or who’d like to see his prose (it’s easy going and always beautiful) when he’s not limited by the subject matter and language of the translation project, to get your hands on one.
When I read John Balcom’s interview with Prof. Watson, the lead article in the Translation Review (#70, 2005 (seems like yesterday) and heard from Balcom and our mutual friend Steve Bradbury that Watson wasn’t getting money of any kind from Columbia, and was actually translating whatever came to hand, including ads and pamphlets, just to get by, I screamed in a couple of people’s ears about getting him a MacArthur grant or a big money prize of some kind… he certainly deserved a Nobel for his service to the world of literature, and of history, and for providing the basic texts of Chinese and Japanese culture to the English readers of the world. I wished I had another $160 check to send him. But, from the Wikipedia biography that tells me all I know about Prof. Watson after 2005 it appears that something like that did happen… he published a couple of more Columbia University Press works after 2005, and also received a Gold Medal prize from a prestigious Japanese cultural organization that I trust was backed up with enough support for his final years to keep him from having to pawn that medal for the gold… I hope I hear from some folks who knew him more intimately that his last couple of years were lived with some of the ease and dignity that a benefactor of the world at large deserves, but maybe sometimes, often, fails to receive.
If there’s an afterlife I dream of listening to Watson explaining Chinese and Japanese languages and translation to Dryden, and comparing notes with his first literary loves Waley and Pound. If we’re most or all reincarnated, may the Heavenly Bureaucrats in charge of our re-assignments, (recalling Waley’s Monkey) with full consideration of our karmic impacts, give us a lifetime of closer contact: I’d gladly do a turn as his amenuensis, or graduate assistant. Hail and farewell to a great man: brilliant, hard working, generous and kind.
Burton Watson poems from The Literary Review, Spring 1989, special Chinese translation issue:
Chang Yueh: Written When Drunk
Once drunk, my delight knows no limits,
So much better than before I’m drunk.
My movements are all shaped like dances,
And everything I say comes out a poem!
Su Tung-P’o: Lotus viewing
The clear wind–what is it?
Something to be loved, not to be named.
Moving like a prince wherever it goes;
The grass and trees whisper its praise.
This outing of ours never had a purpose;
Let the lone boat swing about as it will.
In the middle of the current, lying face up,
I greet the breeze that happens along
And lift a cup to offer to the vastness;
How pleasant–that we have no thought for each other!
Coming back through two river valleys,
Clouds and water shine in the night.
Po Chu-I: A Question Addressed to Liu Shih-Chiu
Green bubbles—new brewed wine;
Lumps of red—a small stove for heating;
Evening comes and the sky threatens snow –
Could you drink a cup, I wonder?
In the ninth month when the west wind blows,
When moonlight is cold and dew blossoms congeal,
I think of you all the long autumn night—
In one night my spirit leaps up nine times.
In the second month when east winds appear,
When grasses sprout and the hearts of flowers unfold,
I think of you through the slow spring days—
One day and my heart takes nine turnings.
I live north of the Lo River bridge,
You live south of the Lo River bridge.
I’ve know you since I was fifteen;
This year I am twenty-three.
Like the dodder plant growing
By the side of the pine,
My tendrils are short, the branches much too high—
Twine and coil as I may, I cannot reach them.
They say when a person has a wish,
If the wish is worthy, Heaven is sure to grant it.
I wish we could be beasts in some faraway place,
Touching, twining limb around limb.
I mount my horse, ready to go out the gate;
out the gate, pause in uncertainty,
sure she must be puzzled by all these spring outings.
I know I go on a lot of spring outings,
But what can an old fellow do,
When the ruddy face of youth is fading, fading,
And white hairs continue and continue to appear?
You have ten fingers—use them,
Make a count of my friends for me.
Sage age one hundred is the outside limit—
How many make it into their seventh decade?
Now I am sixty-five
And speeding downhill like a wheel on a slope.
Supposing I should last to seventy,
That leaves me only five springs more.
Faced with spring, not to go out and enjoy it,
One would have to be a fool!
Rokunyo: When My Beloved Japanese Spaniel Died
A traveler offered you for two thousand coins,
And I bought and raised you—just three years.
In cold and heat, hunger and thirst constantly you stood guard;
By instinct you knew your master, made friends with the servant boys,
spoke no words, yet we always knew your feelings.
You learned to tell regular visitors, jumped up in their laps,
but barked indignantly at a strange face—small use you had for them!
Toss a fruit, call your name, and off you’d race;
paws folded, you stood on your hind legs and begged.
You did the hop-skip, the crawl—I had only to command;
but tuckered out, asleep on your mat—then you were in heaven!
One morning, listless and weak, you fell over like a cart wheel;
At heart you knew there was no cure for the sickness.
A hundred coaxings with food or medicine—you refused them all,
You wagged your tail feebly, straining to lift your
head,trying to tell us humans the misery you were in.
Creatures of different species may learn to care for one another;
look on them as brothers and there’s none you can’t accept.
I wrapped the body in a worn-out mat, buried it in the temple plot,
raised a little grave mound, planted a wooden marker.
That night, returning, I thought he came out the door to greet me;
the tinkle of a bell struck my ear—wasn’t that his sound?
I felt so downcast I barely touched my supper,
Next day the whole day sat on my cushion in a daze.
High-minded people no doubt will scoff at such foolery,
but who knows? These feelings ay be the start of Goodness.*
*A reference to the passage in Mencius, IIA, 6: “The heart of compassion is the start of Goodness”
Spotting Plum Blossoms by the Road
I start to pick them, stop my hand—
whose plum tree is this, poking over the fence?
No one would know, but still I’d be breaking the precepts—
in my breezy sleeve I steal off with a bit of the fragrance.
Winter Day: Scene on the Road to Otsu*
Boats and wagons from north and east converge at this port;
in all the coming and going I don’t see one person idle.
Most pitiful—on Meeting Slope slippery with ice and frost,
rice-bale carriers in thin robes, their bodies drenched in sweat.
*Otsu was an important port town at the southern end of Lake Biwa. Osaka or Meeting Slope is a steep incline on the main road between Otsu and Kyoto.