Burton Watson, an occasional professor at Columbia University and a regular resident of Japan, is a prolific and masterful translator of Chinese and Japanese. His earliest works appeared in the sixties and were translations of Chinese classics, ranging from the Records of the Grand Historian of China (Columbia University Press, 1961) to The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu(Columbia University Press: 1968). But in addition to translations of histories, prose, and Taoist texts, there are at least half a dozen publications of Watson’s translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry, all of which remain in print.
Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home is Watson’s most recent collection of poetry in translation. Saigyo (1118-1190 C.E.) was a Buddhist poet-priest who ranks as one of the most influential court poets of Japan. Although relatively little is known of his life, he was apparently born into a well-connected warrior family and practiced martial arts as a young man, but was not unfamiliar with Japanese court life. Saigyo quit secular life when he was twenty-two, but for some time the lure of the social and political life of the city continued to strain his monastic commitments.
Watson has translated two hundred of Saigyo’s poems while providing a romanized version of the originaI Japanese. The poems are presented in a traditional “seasonal” arrangement, along with chapters on Love, Miscellaneous, and Poems from the Kikigaki shu (a short text of Saigyo poems discovered in 1929). One of the love poems reads:
Now I understand—
when you said “Remember!”
and swore to do the same,
already you had it
in mind to forget
And another poem from the same chapter is no less immediate:
how you must feel!”
And with those words
she grows more hateful
than if she’d never spoken at all
Readers who would like to see more of Saigyo’s poems should also keep in mind William LaFleur’s Mirror for the Moon (New Directions, 1978), which contains 173 poems in translation.
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