1925 - 2017
Burton Dewitt Watson, scholar and translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, died on April 1, 2017, in Japan at the age of 92. As winner of the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal in 2015, Dr. Watson was regarded as "the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time."
Born on June 13, 1925, in New Rochelle, New York, he was the only son of Carolyn LeHentz Bass and Arthur James Watson, and brother to Janet LeHentz Watson Dundon. Although he dropped out of high school to join the US Navy during World War II, the GI Bill allowed him to complete his education at Columbia University, majoring in Chinese and graduating with a PhD in 1956. He taught at Stanford and Columbia Universities as a professor of Chinese and published extensively, translating poetry and prose from Japan and China. The PEN award recognized "Watson for his valued and longstanding commitment to the art of translation, bringing great creativity and precision to his work and introducing exceptional works of literature to a wider audience."
Dr. Watson's affinity for Japan began at the end of WWII, when his naval vessel was stationed at the Yokosuka Naval Base. After receiving his M.A. from Columbia in 1951, he returned to Japan as a graduate student at Kyoto University. Upon completion of his PhD from Columbia, he traveled between his beloved New York and Japan often, finally settling in Japan in 1973, where he studied Zen meditation while he continued his work as a translator. Although a Chinese scholar, he was prevented from studying in China by the communist party and visited for the first time in 1983.
While his published work is extensive--Columbia University Press alone has 41 of his books still in print--his surviving niece and nephews are particularly grateful for his many letters and two unpublished autobiographical works. The first, "Notes on the Watson Family," traces his origins, provides fascinating details of the life of his mother and father, and describes the often difficult times of growing up during the Great Depression until WWII. A more recent work, "Ports of Call," written when he was 85, details a round-the-world trip on the Peace Boat, the last of his many sea voyages.
His surviving relatives knew him as a quiet, unassuming, and generous uncle with a dry sense of humor. He is survived by his partner of many years, Norio Hayashi of Tokyo, Japan; his niece Ann LeHentz Dundon of Santa Barbara, CA; his nephews John Peter Dundon of Onancock, VA, William Dwyer Dundon of Henderson, NV, and Thomas Andrew Dundon of San Marcos, TX; and his grandnieces Caroline Regan LeHentz Dundon and Ravelle Dundon and grandnephew Logan Dundon. His family is grateful to Columbia University Press for the photograph of Burton Dewitt Watson as he might be remembered by his colleagues and students at Columbia University.
A memorial gathering will be held at a later date in Japan.
Published in New York Times from Apr. 18 to Apr. 19, 2017.