Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson

Burton Watson is not the poet-translator largely ignorant of Chinese as Pound or Rexroth were. Since the 1970s, he has lived mostly in Japan; nearing ninety, he still spends hours each morning and evening on translation work. Born in 1925, he was first exposed to Asian languages growing up in New Rochelle, New York, when workers at the laundry his father went to gave him lychee nuts, jasmine tea, and illustrated Chinese magazines; later a high school drop-out in the Navy stationed in the South Pacific, he picked up some Japanese to help him on shore leave. After being discharged, he studied at Columbia University, both as an undergrad and for his PhD (completed in 1956), under L. Carrington Goodrich and Chi-chen Wang, and was later a colleague of C. T. Hsia there.
His translations aim at readers looking for an introduction to Chinese literature rather than at specialists who want to test a fellow academic’s mettle via footnotes and bibliographies. Yet even as the scholar in him acknowledges that he can offer nothing but “one of a variety of tentative interpretations,” the translator in him nevertheless finds ways to make us, in Eliot’s words, “believe that through this translation we really at last get the original.”


# 1.   

Great article! Imho, he was the greatest translator of early Chinese lit in the last half of the 20th century and the greatest contributor to introducing that literature in English during the same period. As you point out, easy to scoff at, but very difficult to do well. I can't imagine myself using the word "burgeoning" in a poem, but he pulls it off brilliantly, even making it echo the earlier "spring." His latest verion of the Analects in particular really opened my eyes to the possibilities of translating classical Chinese and really reflect a lifetime of meditation on how to translate those lines. In contrast, I feel like a lot of the big anthologies feel like a hodgepodge of first drafts that lack any bold editorial vision or coherency, as if it is more important to say, "there, we did it, on to the next project," and this was really off-putting to me as my first introduction to the literature.

Jeff K, May 15, 2014, 3:20p.m.

# 2.   

Thanks--well put!


Lucas Klein, May 16, 2014, 5:40p.m.


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