Edward Seidensticker, 1921-2007

edward seidensticker and donald ritchie

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.

And Seidensticker:

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.


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1 Comment

  1. Dear Sir:
    In 2007, it was with great sorrow that we learned of the passing of the notable University of Colorado alumnus, WWII US Navy Japanese Language School graduate, and great Japanese literature translator and interpreter, Professor Edward Seidensticker. He had been on the mailing list of our USN Japanese/Oriental Language School Archival Project, at the Archives, University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries, since 2000. We have received his diaries and a large portion of his papers and are in the process of receiving more.
    You should know that he was one of hundreds of USN JLS/OLS graduates who went into academia in Japan and Asia studies in literature, art, political science, history, economics, sociology, anthropology, and other fields. Along with US Army JLS graduates, they dominated those fields for 40 years after the War. If you would like to know more, please see our website: . It contains 190+ issues of our project newsletters, most of the content of which are their stories, obituaries, and commentary.
    Professor Seidensticker was very highly regarded by his JLS classmates and fellow Marine language Officers, many of whome kept in touch with him throughout his life.
    I regret ths late comment, but I only now found your blog on the web. If possible, I would like to use it and the photo in our free newsletter.
    Respectfully, David M. Hays, Archivist
    University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries
    Boulder, CO 80309-0184
    (303) 492-7242