Burton Dewitt Watson
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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41 of his books still in print--his surviving niece and nephews are particularly grateful for his many letters and two unpublished autobiographical works.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.

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Published in New York Times from Apr. 18 to Apr. 19, 2017.
Memories & Condolences
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17 entries
April 12, 2021
While Burton has left us, his contributions to the understanding of Chinese literature in the West will remain.
James Zimmerman
Friend
April 12, 2020
He is greatly missed, as a scholar and translator, a teacher, and a friend
James Zimmerman
April 6, 2018
Living for some years in Japan, I had the pleasure of getting to know Burton Watson. During that time I experienced a deep loss and Burton's great insight and wise counsel made a great difference to me in seeing my way out of the darkness. Rest well, dear friend. You are missed.
Catherine Nicosia
March 3, 2018
SPRING Cherry Blossoms
Burton Watson was an amazing person whom enlightened my life. I was a graduate student at Columbia University, co-teaching an Asian Humanities course with Prof. Barbara Miller, when Prof. Watson joined our class as a visiting scholar in 1990-1991. Burton Watson was such a warm, pleasant, and unassuming person, despite his vast scholarly experience and literary accomplishments. He enjoyed participating candidly in the class, and guiding me (a graduate student) in a quiet, yet very supportive manner. After class, we would walk down Broadway together, when he would tell me that he couldn't wait to get home to meditate! I enjoyed hearing about his experiences with Zen meditation, comparing them to my own, non-Zen meditation practice. Coming from a Columbia scholar, this was quite a refreshing point of connection. I will always have fond memories of his "being," his humility, his "beginner's mind," and his unassuming brilliance. He is a person that the world will sorely miss, although his legacy - a massive body of translations - will live on for eternity. Burton Watson serves as an example and guide for all.
Susan Landesman
June 9, 2017
Professor Burton D Watson visit to Xian 2011
Peter Chin
June 7, 2017
Thanks a lot for having this page that we can leave our words of appreciation for his great work in introducing Classic Chinese literature into the English world. I am from Xian, China, and I was lucky to invite him to Xian in year 2011, at his age of 86, introducing his book of China at Last to Chinese readers. Chin@peihua.cn
Peter Chin
May 20, 2017
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.
Joe Tonan
May 4, 2017
Chado Tea Master
It has been such an honour to have read and studied the translation works of this great and respected master.
Scott Rogers
April 29, 2017
The gift of his scholarship will resonate for centuries.He opened up and gave us voices from the East that the West was deaf to before.
Barry Curran
April 23, 2017
A master to many of us in East Asian literature, a bridge for peoples, for generations.
Rafal Felbur
April 23, 2017
I could not have had a better introduction to Classical Chinese than the one I had the privilege of receiving from Dr. Watson at Columbia in the summer of 1965, and I am sure I am only one of a great many students of things Chinese who are in his debt.
Robert Gimello
April 22, 2017
A wonderful friend to an anxious graduate student!
Robert E. Hegel
April 22, 2017
One of the very greatest translators in the English language. I thank him from the bottom of my heart.
Chip Elliott
April 22, 2017
When I turned sixteen, I used all my birthday money to buy Burton Watson's "The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu" from Arthur Probsthain's in London and it has remained one of my most treasured books to this day.
Desmond Cheung
April 22, 2017
I met Burton Watson in the 1960s and had several stimulating conversations. His production of translations was amazing. Although he enjoyed long life, he will be missed.
James Zimmerman
April 22, 2017
A giant translator - helping generations of scholars meeting east and west
Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer
April 20, 2017
I never had the chance to meet Professor Watson but I consider him to be one of my great teachers. My bookshelves are lined with his translations from the Japanese and Chinese. My favorite book of Professor Watson's is The Rainbow World, it is a fascinating account of his many years residence in Japan. I hope one day his family can publish the two unpublished autobiographical works he wrote. Than you for all you have given us Professor Watson.
Christopher Coulouris
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