Burton Watson, American scholar and translator of classical Chinese and Japanese literature, passed away on April 1 at Hatsutomi Hospital in Kamagata City, Chiba, Japan at the age of 91.
Watson was well-known for his translations of Chinese and Japanese history, philosophy, and poetry, and sacred Buddhist texts. He made many classical Chinese and Japanese works accessible to the English-reading public, helping to define East Asian literature in North America.
Watson first experienced Japan and East Asian culture as a member of the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II. After being discharged from the Navy, Watson went on to study Chinese and Japanese at Columbia University, which would inform the rest of his career. Watson worked as a professor at both Columbia and Stanford early in his career, and permanently moved to Japan in 1973 where he devoted his time to translation.
Watson picked up Zen meditation and koan study while living in Japan. Though not a student of the Nichiren school of Buddhism, Watson worked as a translator for Soka Gakkai International, for whom he translated the Lotus Sutra, one of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Speaking of this period in a 2011 interview, Watson said, “I have greatly enjoyed my work for the organization and have profited immensely from the opportunity it has given me to broaden my knowledge of Buddhist thought and history.”
Watson received a number of esteemed awards for his work, including the Gold Medal Award of the Translation Center at Columbia University in 1979, the PEN Translation Prize in 1982 again in 1995, and the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation in 2015.