Translator and essayist Edward Seidensticker died last Sunday afternoon in Tokyo. He was 86 and had been in a coma after a fall near his home some months ago.
Although Seidensticker is best known for his translation of the world’s oldest surviving novel, Genji Monogatari (源氏物語, The Tale of Genji), and his translations of Kawabata which – they say – helped that oblique old curmudgeon win the Nobel Prize in 1968, I owe him for introducing me to the works of Tanizaki, especially Some Prefer Nettles and The Makioka Sisters. In fact, although I’ve subsequently gone on to read and enjoy most of Tanizaki’s (translated) works, I’ve never been quite as satisfied with them as I was with those first two Seidensticker translations.
That raises the question of whether I like Tanizaki’s writings or Seidensticker’s translations of Tanizaki’s writings. This happens a lot, I guess, when you live in a country which speaks a language not your own. Japanese literature, of course, is notoriously difficult to render into English, and our impressions of it rely solely on who gets translated and who gets to translate them. This can lead to some confusion when you find out, for example, that Yukio Mishima, whose works are available everywhere in translation, isn’t very popular at all in 21st-century Japan (convoluted writing style, themes that no one gives a damn about any more). On the other hand, more than a few foreign teachers have given a blank look at the student who claims to like Mishima’s far more popular contemporary, Ryoutarou Shiba, the historical novelist. Only a couple of his books are available in English, but ten years after his death, his books and essays are still widely read and enjoyed by the Japanese (especially in Osaka, where he was from).
Of course, popularity isn’t everything: in Japan, Sidney Sheldon is spoken of in the same tones of respect that other countries reserve for Tolstoy, and Banana Yoshimoto’s success abroad (they especially love her in Germany, apparently) continues to mystify any Japanese person under 35 or over 50.
But I digress. I raise a glass to Seidensticker and his generation of post-War ex-pats who hung around and tried to make sense of this place. And if the Journals of Donald Richie are accurate (and I don’t doubt they are), raising a glass would be the best way to remember his old friend. And of course, reading his books.
Addendum 070907: Click here to for the link to what was possibly Edward Seidensticker’s last interview (dated April, 2007). For a new architectural archive documenting Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence in Japan, Seidensticker rhapsodizes about Wright’s long-demolished Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (then scroll down the same page to get Donald Richie’s far less sentimental view of the old pile).