August 31, 2007
Edward Seidensticker, Translator, Is Dead at 86
By MARGALIT FOX
Edward G. Seidensticker, an eminent translator from the Japanese who brought the work of ancient and modern writers to a wide English-speaking public, died on Sunday in Tokyo. He was 86 and made his home in Tokyo.
The cause was complications of a head injury Mr. Seidensticker sustained several months ago, said Haruo Shirane, Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University. Mr. Seidensticker, who leaves no immediate survivors, was, at his death, emeritus professor of Japanese literature at Columbia.
Mr. Seidensticker was most widely known for his translation of “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century epic of love and intrigue by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese lady-in-waiting at the imperial court. Mr. Seidensticker’s translation, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1976, was praised by critics and attracted a popular following.
In addition, Mr. Seidensticker was closely associated with the work of three 20th-century novelists: Yukio Mishima (“The Decay of the Angel,” 1974); Junichiro Tanizaki (“Some Prefer Nettles,” 1955); and, most notably, Yasunari Kawabata, whose novels “Snow Country” and “Thousand Cranes” appeared in the United States in 1956 and 1959.
Mr. Seidensticker’s translations of Kawabata’s work are generally credited with helping Kawabata secure the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, the first Japanese writer to receive the award. Mr. Seidensticker himself won a National Book Award in 1971 for his translation of Kawabata’s novel “The Sound of the Mountain.”
A longtime commentator for American newspapers on the Japanese literary scene, Mr. Seidensticker also wrote several nonfiction books about Japan, including a two-volume history of Tokyo, comprising “Low City, High City: Tokyo From Edo to the Earthquake” (Knopf, 1983) and “Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake” (Knopf, 1990); and a memoir, “Tokyo Central,” published by the University of Washington in 2002.
Translating “The Tale of Genji,” as Mr. Seidensticker later described it, was a labor of love that took 10 years. At the time, the most complete English translation available was by Arthur Waley, published in the 1920s and ’30s. Though respected, Waley’s translation was lushly Victorian, and it fell to Mr. Seidensticker to produce something sparer. Here is Waley’s version of the tale’s opening line:
“At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favored far beyond all the rest.”
Here is Mr. Seidensticker’s, short and sweet:
“In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.”
Edward George Seidensticker was born on Feb. 11, 1921, on his family’s isolated ranch in Castle Rock, Colo. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Colorado in 1942. At the university, he also attended the Navy’s Japanese Language School, which had been moved there from the West Coast after Pearl Harbor.
In World War II, Mr. Seidensticker was a language officer with the Marines in the Pacific, going ashore at Iwo Jima, he later recalled, “loaded down with dictionaries.” At war’s end, he worked as a translator in occupied Japan.
Wanting to return there, Mr. Seidensticker earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia in 1947. He spent several years in Japan as a foreign-service officer and studied Japanese literature at Tokyo University. He lived in Japan full time from 1948 to 1962. On his return to the United States, he taught at Stanford and the University of Michigan before joining the Columbia faculty in 1978.
During his years in Japan Mr. Seidensticker became friends with many of the writers he translated, though the friendships were sometimes tested during the delicate diplomatic dance that is central to the translator’s art. As Mr. Seidensticker recalled in “Tokyo Central,” some writers required more dancing than others:
“Tanizaki wrote clear, rational sentences,” Mr. Seidensticker wrote. “I do not, certainly, wish to suggest that I disapprove of such sentences; but translating them is not very interesting. There was little I felt inclined to ask Tanizaki about.”
Not so with Kawabata. “Do you not, my esteemed master, find this a rather impenetrable passage?” Mr. Seidensticker recalled asking him, ever so gently, during the translation of “Snow Country.”
“He would dutifully scrutinize the passage, and answer: ‘Yes,’ ” Mr. Seidensticker wrote. “Nothing more.”