Edward Sedensticker, who died at 86 on Sunday in Tokyo, was one of the greatest translators of Japanese literature. He had been in a coma for months following a head injury. Among his books were The Tale of Genji, Snow Country and Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature; The Makioka Sisters and “Some Prefer Nettles” by Junichiro Tanizaki and The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima.
He first studied Japanese at the Navy’s Japanese Language School. After serving in the Pacific during WW2, he traveled to Japan. Later he taught at Sophia University in Tokyo and at Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Michigan. Recently he wrote a two-volume history of Tokyo (Edo).
Seidenstecker was said to have been reading Jane Austen during his Genji translation (which took more than a decade to complete), which helped to color his rendering. It’s instructive to compare (as Margalit Fox did in the NYT) the opening of Seidenstecker’s Genji with that of the earlier translation by Edward Waley. First Waley:
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 beyond all the rest.
In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.
It is wonderful that Seidensticker manages the sentences without in internal punctuation. For comparison, here is the opening of the 2002 Royall Tyler translation:
In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all his Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.
I don’t read Japanese, and it may be that Murasaki wrote with a herky jerky quality that broke up sentences into sequences of short almost disconnected fragments. But even in that case we might ask whether the translator should translate at the surface level or the deep level. In any event, I know that it is Seidensticker’s Genji I would choose to read.
IMAGE: Edward Seidensticker (center) and Donald Ritchie (right) at Good Day Books in Ebisu, from Metroblogging Tokyo. The image has been slightly modified.