Obituary: Edward Seidensticker
Professor Edward Seidensticker.
My friend sent me a link today to an article on Yahoo news announcing the death of Edward Seidensticker. He was a translator of many important Japanese works of literature, most famously The Tale of Genji although I first knew him through reading his rendition of Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country, a beautiful book.
I still remember finishing it on the plane to New York City, coming to take my interview for the JET program. In the interview at the Consulate, I was quizzed about the depth of my knowledge of Japanese culture. Despite my homestay experience, travel to Japan, two years of undergrad Japanese culture and language courses, it was when I mentioned that I had just finished reading Snow Country on the plane that my interviewer’s eyes lit up. It turned out to be his favorite book.
The book didn’t get me into the JET program, but it certainly helped. Snow Country is a book of subtle beauty, and Seidensticker translated it well. I can understand why Japanese, including my interviewer, loved the work so much, and why they respect Seidensticker for doing so much to introduce Kawabata to the English speaking world. For them, he translated the undecipherable beauty of Japanese culture to a wider audience and allowed them to appreciate it too, and for this he was loved.
Translating the subtle prose and teasing out the nuance is difficult enough, but the larger contribution was his choice of the works in the first place. Seidensticker is one of a generation of World War II Japanophiles who helped to form what would become the canon of Japanese literature. Beyond his skill as a translator, he will be remembered for his contribution to the canon, and in doing so transmitting the beauty of Japanese literature and culture to a larger audience.
Some people critique this generation’s work, but on this occasion we must acknowledge the great debt the current generation of scholars owes to the older generation. In a difficult period of history, with little precedent, they constructed the scholarly framework on which many today are making their livelihoods working, tinkering, and retooling.
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