Burton Watson

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Burton Watson
Born (1925-06-13) June 13, 1925 (age 91)
New Rochelle, New York, United States
Occupation Scholar, translator
Nationality American
Education Columbia University
Period 1962–present
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 華滋生
Simplified Chinese 华滋生
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 伯頓 沃森
Simplified Chinese 伯顿 沃森
Japanese name
Kana バートン ワトソン

Burton DeWitt Watson (born June 13, 1925) is an American scholar and translator[1] of both Chinese and Japanese literature. He has received awards including the Gold Medal Award of the Translation Center at Columbia University in 1979, the PEN Translation Prize in 1982[2] for his translation with Hiroaki Sato of From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry, and again in 1995 for Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o. He also received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation in 2015.[3]

Life and career[edit]

Burton Watson was born on June 13, 1925, in New Rochelle, New York. In 1943, at age 17, Watson dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Navy, and was stationed on repair vessels in the South Pacific. His ship was in the Marshall Islands when World War II ended in August 1945, and the following month sailed to Japan to anchor at the Yokosuka Naval Base, where Watson had his first direct experiences with Japan and East Asia. Watson was discharged from the Navy in 1946 and was accepted into Columbia University, where he majored in Chinese. His main Chinese teachers were the American Sinologist L. Carrington Goodrich and Chinese scholar Wang Chi-chen (王際真; 1899–2001). At that time, most of the Chinese curriculum focused on learning to read Chinese characters, as it was assumed that any "serious students" could later learn to speak Chinese by going to China.[4] He also took one year of Japanese. Watson spent five years studying at Columbia, earning a B.A. in 1949 and an M.A. in 1951.

After receiving his M.A. in 1951, Watson hoped to move to China for further study, but the Communist Party of China had closed to the country to Americans. He was unable to find any positions in Taiwan or Hong Kong, and so moved to Japan as a Ford Foundation Overseas Fellow.[2] In 1956 he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia with a doctoral dissertation on 1st century BC historian Sima Qian entitled "Ssu-ma Ch'ien: The Historian and His Work".[1] He worked as an English teacher at Doshisha University in Kyoto, as a research assistant to Yoshikawa Kōjirō, who was Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Kyoto University,[5] and as a member of Ruth Fuller Sasaki's team translating Buddhist texts into English.[1] He has also taught at Stanford and Columbia as a professor of Chinese. He moved to Japan in 1973, where he remains to this day, and has devoted much of his time to translation.

He and colleague Professor Donald Keene frequently participated in the seminars of William Theodore de Bary given to students at Columbia University.


Translations from the Chinese include:

  • The Lotus Sutra: and Its Opening and Closing Sutras, 2009
  • Late Poems of Lu You, Ahadada Books, 2007.
  • Analects of Confucius, 2007
  • The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, 2004
  • The Selected Poems of Du Fu, 2002
  • Vimalakirti Sutra 1997
  • Selected Poems of Su Tung-P'o, (Copper Canyon Press, 1994)
  • The Lotus Sutra, 1993
  • Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty, 1992[6]
  • The Tso Chuan: Selections from China’s Oldest Narrative History, 1989
  • Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century, 1971
  • Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-Shan, 1970
  • The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu, 1973
  • Chinese Rhyme-Prose: Poems in the Fu Form from the Han and Six Dynasties Periods, 1971
  • The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968
  • Su Tung-p'o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet, 1965
  • Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 1964
  • Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings, 1964
  • Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings, 1963
  • Mo Tzu: Basic Writings, 1963
  • Early Chinese Literature, 1962
  • Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1961
  • Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Grand Historian of China, 1958
  • Chinese Rhyme-Prose: Poems in the Fu Form from the Han and Six Dynasties Periods. Rev. ed. New York Review Books, 2015.

Translations from Japanese include:

  • The Tale of the Heike, 2006
  • For All My Walking: Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka with Excerpts from His Diaries, 2004
  • The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol 1 in 1999 and vol 2 in 2006
  • The Wild Geese (Gan, by Mori Ōgai), 1995
  • Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, 1991
  • The Flower of Chinese Buddhism (Zoku Watakushi no Bukkyō-kan, by Ikeda Daisaku), 1984
  • Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei, 1983
  • Ryōkan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, 1977
  • Buddhism: The First Millennium (Watakushi no Bukkyō-kan, by Ikeda Daisaku), 1977
  • The Living Buddha (Watakushi no Shakuson-kan, by Ikeda Daisaku), 1976

Many of Watson's translations have been published through the Columbia University Press.


  1. ^ a b c Stirling 2006, pg. 92
  2. ^ a b "Ahadada Books-Burton Watson". Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  3. ^ "Burton Watson Named Winner of 2015 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation". PEN/America. April 24, 2015. Retrieved April 30, 2015. 
  4. ^ Balcom (2005).
  5. ^ "Harvard University Press: An Introduction to Sung Poetry by Kojiro Yoshikawa". Retrieved 2009-06-01. 
  6. ^ Qian Sima; Burton Watson (January 1993). Records of the Grand Historian: Han dynasty. Renditions-Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-08164-1. 


External links[edit]