NEW YORK - Burton Watson, the foremost translator of Chinese classics and poetry into English and my co-translator of the anthology of Japanese poetry “From the Country of Eight Islands” (1981), died on April 1 in a hospital in Chiba. He was 91 years old.
I knew Watson since the early 1970s, so allow me to call him Burt.
I came to know Burt because the publisher of my “Spring & Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa” turned to him for an introduction. Andrea Miller, of the Asia Society of New York, had sent a batch of my translations of modern Japanese poetry to Chicago Review, and its student editor and poetry editor, Alexander Besher and Curt Matthews, decided to devote one issue to my translations. Then they started a publishing house, calling it Chicago Review Press, with the idea of doing a series of Japanese poets in my translation. “Spring & Asura” was the first.
The evening Burt invited me to his apartment to go over my translations remains vivid. Before we started work on the list he’d made on a yellow pad, he offered beer. Thereafter, every time we finished our cans, he’d ask, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Another?” And each time I nodded, he would unfold his long legs to get up from the low table and fetch two cans of beer from a refrigerator at the other end of a spacious, bare room. In the few years after arriving in New York City, I had come to fancy myself to be a good imbiber not to get drunk on mere beer, but I found I was wrong that evening.
Besher and Matthews’ plan for Japanese poets proved a bit too optimistic, though they managed to get out four volumes in the series and Burt wrote introductions to three of them. Aside from “Spring & Asura” (1973), these were “Poems of a Penisist” of Mutsuo Takahashi (1975) and “See You Soon” of Taeko Tomioka (1979). For each poet, Burt showed easy familiarity, though each was very different from the other.
If Miyazawa was a modernist in the 1920s, Takahashi had emerged as an openly gay poet around 1960, whereas Tomioka was a poet Burt characterized this way: “A native of Osaka, resident of Tokyo, and visitor to New York, she has the big city dweller’s savvy and refusal to be awed by affectation or cant.”
Of these, Tomioka, who had spent some time here, came again after my translation came out to attend the staging of her play. I remember her dismissing women’s libbers as “triflers” when we met. So I was surprised several years later when I read her book with feminists Chikako Ogura and Chizuko Ueno excoriating Japanese male writers on the way they described women.
By the time Chicago Review Press gave up on the Japanese poets series, Burt was long back to Japan, living in Osaka, but when I proposed a large anthology of Japanese poetry, he readily agreed to work on it with me. When the work was done, it was Burt who came up with the poetic title incorporating one of the ancient names of Japan, “Eight Islands.”
He wrote me regularly, typing up each aerogram fully. He wrote about the places he visited. He said he liked to check out the places mentioned in the writings he was translating. Likewise with food. Once he wrote how he loved to go to a yatai (food cart) after a public bath. While drinking and eating, he’d ask the woman or man cooking and serving food what this or that was made of.
Later, when he sent me “Stories of Osaka Life by Sakunosuke Oda” (1990), as he did many others of his books, I realized that, when he was making queries at yatai, he was translating “Meoto Zenzai,” Oda’s fond 1940 story that was turned into a film in 1955. It’s about a love affair between Ryukichi, a merchant’s spoiled, married son, and Choko, a geisha. Ryukichi, a gourmand of sorts, takes Choko to down-and-out eateries, explaining how each establishment serves a dish that’s the best of its kind. So Burt had to find out what those mysterious things were. In his translation of this story, “Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two,” all the unfamiliar food items come with brief explanations.
Once a peer reviewer of his translation of a Chinese classic pointed out that it was wordy. He took the criticism to heart and retranslated the whole thing, he wrote.
Burt dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1943 at age 17, and reached Japan aboard a Liberty ship a month after the country surrendered. When he returned to the United States, he went to Columbia College to study Chinese on the GI Bill.
In 1951 when he was completing his master’s degree, Hideki Yukawa, the first Japanese to win a Nobel Prize (in 1949) and then teaching at Columbia, introduced him to Kojiro Yoshikawa at the University of Kyoto. So he went to Kyoto to become the great Sinologist’s assistant. By the late ’50s, he had embarked on translating a long string of Chinese classics, beginning with the big “Ssu-ma Ch’ien: Grand Historian of China” (1959).
As he tells us in “China at Last” (2013), for all his work on Chinese classics and poetry, Burt did not visit the country until 1983 — 37 years after he’d begun studying Chinese. For most of that time, and afterward, he lived in Japan. In our long association he never told me, and I never asked him, why, though sometimes I wondered.
That wonderment may be misplaced, of course, for the answer can be simple. Donald Richie, whose life was almost the same as Burt’s except for the field of interest, once said to me: “You, a Japanese, prefer to live in New York; I, an American, prefer to live in Tokyo.”
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.