I was alerted to a post by Lucas Klein, regarding the passing of Burton Watson on April 1, 2017. We have not been able to find any obituary notices. Watson’s translations, particularly of Zhuangzi and Xunzi, are probably the first introductions English readers have of early Chinese thought. His Zhuangzi translation is certainly the one that has had the most poetic effect on me. He was one of the giants of translation.
Very sad to hear. He lived to a great old age, alongside the other giants of his era, Wm T de Bary and Donald Keene.
His straightforward translations of Chinese classics, Zhuangzi and Sima Qian especially, had the ability to benefit the Western world immensely, as I learned when we did close readings of them at St. John’s College. I now make a hobby of responding fiercely and angrily when Japanese academics I know attack Sima Qian for his “imperial” worldview.
Unfortunately modern America (and modern Japan, I guess… unlike Meiji Japan) is not a nation that feels the need to evaluate rival cultures based on the greatest examples of their literature, and Watson won prizes but it seems to me that he never got the public fame that he really deserved. He translated industrial manuals for a living and retired in mild circumstances in Japan, although he had the money to visit his friend De Bary at Columbia from time to time. Hopefully China specialists will take a moment to remember him.
The New York Times has published an obituary for Burton Watson: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?n=burton-dewitt-watson&pid=185123075&.
Contemplating the Phantasamal
-from Selected Poems of Po Chü-I
tr. Burton Watson
All beings rise out of extinction,
numbering their point of departure, after that no more sameness.
From delight we move at last to sorrow,
through mounting afflictions to end in nothingness.
Little by little eyes grow dimmer;
so brief the time, candles in the passing wind.
And the there’s no where you can look for us,
bird tracks left behind in an empty sky.