Burton Watson, whose spare, limpid translations, with erudite introductions, opened up the world of classical Japanese and Chinese literature to generations of English-speaking readers, died on April 1 in Kamagaya, Japan. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his nephew William Dundon.
For nearly six decades, Mr. Watson was a one-man translation factory, producing indispensable English versions of Chinese and Japanese literary, historical and philosophical texts, dozens of them still in print. Generations of students and teachers relied on collections like “Early Chinese Literature” (1962), “Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry From the Second to the Twelfth Century” (1971), “From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry” (1981) and “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the 13th Century” (1984).
He rendered the poems of such classic Chinese writers as Su Tung-p’o, Po Chu-I and Du Fu and the Japanese poets Ryokan and Masaoka Shiki in a contemporary idiom informed by his wide reading in modern American poetry. In “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” (1987), the essayist Eliot Weinberger described Mr. Watson as not only “a prolific and particularly fine translator” but also “the first scholar whose work displays an affinity with the modernist revolution in American poetry: absolute precision, concision, and the use of everyday speech.” His admirers included the poets Gary Snyder and W. S. Merwin.
In 2015, the literary organization PEN awarded Mr. Watson its Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, calling him “the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time.”
Burton DeWitt Watson was born on June 13, 1925, in New Rochelle, N.Y. His father, Arthur, was a hotel manager, and his mother, the former Carolyn Bass, was a homemaker.
His first encounter with Chinese culture came through a neighborhood laundry. “Each year at Christmas the laundry people gave us a box of dried litchi nuts and a container of jasmine tea, and sometimes they threw in a copy of an illustrated magazine in Chinese,” he said in a 2005 interview. “This was my first encounter with written Chinese.”
He dropped out of high school in 1943 to enlist in the Navy. At the end of World War II, his ship was sent to the Yokosuka Naval Base in Tokyo Bay, where he picked up enough spoken Japanese to use during shore leave.
After returning to the United States, he began studying Chinese at Columbia University. He earned a B.A. in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1951. He spent time learning Japanese as a graduate student at Kyoto University before returning to Columbia for his doctorate in Chinese, which was awarded in 1956.
A version of his dissertation, on Sima Qian, a historian of the Han dynasty, was published by Columbia University Press in 1958 as “Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Grand Historian of China.”
By then Grove Press had already published his translations of several kanshi — poems in Chinese written by Japanese poets — in Donald Keene’s “Anthology of Japanese Literature” (1955). He would return to this specialized branch of Japanese literature in “Japanese Literature in Chinese,” a two-volume anthology published in 1975 and 1976, and “Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets” (1990).
Because of restrictions imposed by China’s Communist government, he could not visit China until 1983, a decade after he had settled permanently in Japan. He was able to support himself with his translation work, but for several years he supplemented his income writing advertising copy and product instruction manuals for an Osaka agency.
He is survived by his longtime companion, Norio Hayashi.
Mr. Watson’s many translations also include “Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan” (1962), “Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings” (1964), “The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu” (1968), “Ryokan, Zen Monk-Poet of Japan” (1977) and “The Tso Chuan: Selections From China’s Oldest Narrative History” (1989). In 1995, in a rare excursion into modern literature, he translated Mori Ogai’s “The Wild Goose,” a Japanese novel written between 1911 and 1913.
In 2015, New York Review Books reissued his 1971 book “Chinese Rhyme-Prose,” a collection of 13 fu, or prose poems, a genre popular between the second century B.C. and the sixth century A.D.