edward eidensticker
japanese translator

Translating Modern Japanese Literature to its Fullest: Edward George Seidensticker

Edward George Seidensticker
February 11, 1921 - August 26, 2007
“Literary translation is an exercise of the impossible.”
-Edward George Seidensticker

Edward George Seidensticker was a noted post-World War II scholar, historian, and preeminent translator of classical and contemporary Japanese literature. Seidensticker is widely considered one of the most accomplished English-language translators of classic and contemporary Japanese literature. His translations have been described as "brilliant" and "elegant" by scholars as his work enabled the readers to feel the emotions and nuances that the original writer wanted to convey.

He was born in 1921 on his family’s isolated small ranch in Castle Rock, Colorado. During high school, recognizing that he was neither athletic nor mechanically competent, he began to sneak away in his free time to study Dickens and Thackeray. He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder and studied English, which was not expected of him, as his family was financially struggling and rooting for him to study Economics. Following his English education, he completed the US Navy Japanese/Oriental Language School at the same university.

The first time Seidensticker encountered the Japanese language was during World War II. He boarded a ship heading for Iwo Jima in February 1945. He wasn't among the first waves of troops to arrive during the battle, but he soon found himself on a beach "loaded down with dictionaries." Although learning Japanese and being an interpreter during the time of war was not his initial plan, his newfound appreciation for the language and the land of Japan stayed with him for the rest of his life. His appreciation of Japan and the Japanese people deepened after witnessing the destruction of war. He got out of the military and focused on his Japanese literature work.

Seidensticker is strongly identified with the work of three great Japanese writers of the twentieth century: Yasunari Kawabata, Jun'ichir Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima. His seminal translations of Kawabata's books, particularly Snow Country (1956) and Thousand Cranes (1958) contributed to Kawabata being the first Japanese person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.

Seidensticker saw literary translation as an exercise in the impossible. He divided the concept of perfect translation into two parts: “The Idea” and “The Practice”. He said, ”One has an idea of what constitutes perfect translation, but in practice, that’s not the way it works.” He saw translating literature as making choices between different solutions to a single issue at each step of the way. He found this problematic as neither solution is ever, or very rarely, a perfect one. To him, the choice you make always leaves something out that would be found in one of the other choices. Hence, he viewed translation, particularly literary translation, as an imperfect process.

After completing his master’s in Tokyo, which he refers to as “the world's most consistently interesting city”, he started to work as a professor at Sophia University and, although the universities changed, he remained a scholar until his death in 2007.

Seidensticker’s language skills led to a life-long career as a writer and a translator of more than 100 Japanese literary titles. He played an important role in introducing the great novelists of Japanese literature to a broader audience.

Edward George Seidensticker in numbers:

14  The number of years he lived as a translator in Japan.

15  The number of years it took Seidensticker to complete the English translation of the “Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century epic by the courtesan Murasaki Shikibu chronicling the romantic adventures of a good-looking prince. His is the fullest and most accurate translation of the novel.

100+  The number of literary works that he translated from Japanese into English in his lifetime.

1971  The year that he won the National Book Award for Translation, for his translation work on the novel, "The Sound of the Mountain." by Yasunari Kawabata.

1977  The year that Edward George Seidensticker was honored in Japan by the Order of the Rising Sun, with the Kikuchi Kan Prize.

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Citations: The Atlantic, LA Times, “The Idea and Practice of Translation”: An Annotated Transcription of Edward Seidensticker’s Talk at Doshisha University - Juliet W. CARPENTER

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Published on Jun 20, 2022 by IREM KOCASLAN

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