Edward Seidensticker

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Edward Seidensticker

Edward George Seidensticker (February 11, 1921, Castle Rock, Colorado – August 26, 2007, Tokyo[1]) was a noted scholar and translator of Japanese literature. He was particularly known for his English version of The Tale of Genji (1976), which is counted among the preferred modern translations.[2] He is also well known for his landmark translations of Yasunari Kawabata, which led to Kawabata winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.[3]


Seidensticker was born in 1921 in Castle Rock, Colorado. He studied English at the University of Colorado, obtaining his bachelor's degree in 1942. During his studies, he also attended Navy’s Japanese Language School. Subsequently, he served as a language officer with the US Marines during World War II and work in Japan after the war as translator. He returned to the United States and receined a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University. Then Seidensticker returned to Japan, where he studied Japanese literature at University of Tokyo. He stayed in Japan until 1962. Then he went back to the US and taught in Stanford University and University of Michigan. In 1978, he joined the faculty of Columbia University,[4] from where he retired in 1985. Since then, he divided his time between Hawaii and Japan. He died in a hospital in Tokyo from consequences of a head injury.[1]

Translator work[edit]

Seidensticker has been sometimes described[by whom?] as "the best translator of Japanese that has ever lived"; and yet, he admitted that sometimes translation is a nearly impossible task. It becomes not only a matter of words, but also of rhythm. In a 2006 interview, he tried to explain by pointing to a well-known phrase in English – the line at the end of Shakespeare's Hamlet: "Good night, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

"It is an utterly simple line and I think it is a very, very beautiful line. It contains 14 syllables in English. I have looked at all the main translations into Japanese and they all contain at least three times that number of syllables. It takes longer to say something in Japanese than it does in English, and so the rhythm must be different. I always liken the translator to a counterfeiter ... his task is to imitate the original down to the last detail."[5]

The introduction to Seidensticker's translation of The Master of Go explains: "Go is simple in its fundamentals and infinitely complex in the execution of them;" and the same dynamic applies to good writing and to great translation. One of the characters in Kawabata's master-work observes: "When a law is made, the cunning that finds loopholes goes to work. One cannot deny that there is a certain slyness among younger players, a slyness which, when the rules are written to prevent slyness, makes use of the rules themselves" – ditto, the sly translation strategy of Seidensticker at work and at play.[6]

Seidensticker won the National Book Award in category Translation for his edition of Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain (a split award).[7] He also translated The Decay of the Angel, the last volume of Yukio Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy, and several of Mishima's stories. Seidensticker translated Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters and Some Prefer Nettles and authored important criticism on Tanizaki's place in 20th-century Japanese literature. The New York Times obituary allowed the translator to speak for himself:

During his years in Japan Mr. Seidensticker became friends with many of the writers he translated, though the friendships were sometimes tested during the delicate diplomatic dance that is central to the translator’s art. As Mr. Seidensticker recalled in Tokyo Central, some writers required more dancing than others:
"Tanizaki wrote clear, rational sentences," Mr. Seidensticker wrote. "I do not, certainly, wish to suggest that I disapprove of such sentences; but translating them is not very interesting. There was little I felt inclined to ask Tanizaki about."
Not so with Kawabata. "Do you not, my esteemed master, find this a rather impenetrable passage?" Mr. Seidensticker recalled asking him, ever so gently, during the translation of Snow Country.
"He would dutifully scrutinize the passage, and answer: 'Yes,' " Mr. Seidensticker wrote. "Nothing more."[4]

The last work he supervised translating into English was You Were Born for a Reason on Japanese Buddhism.[8]


He also wrote widely on Japan, including a two-volume history of TokyoLow City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (1983) and Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake (1990) – and Kafu the Scribbler (1965), a biography of writer Kafū Nagai.[1]

Born in Castle Rock, Colorado, he studied the Japanese language in 1942 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with colleague Donald Keene. He studied Japanese literature at Harvard University and the University of Tokyo. He taught at Sophia University in Tokyo, at Stanford University (1962–1966), the University of Michigan (1966–1977), and Columbia (1977–1985) until his retirement in 1985. In his academic career, he is also credited with being a teacher for his peers. In an 2004 interview, Donald Richie explained:

It didn’t occur to me that there were things beside linear, rational, Socratic thought. In the West, it is an insult is to say, "But that’s illogical!' Here, if you want to devastate a person, tell him he’s ronri-teki – too logical. One of the main ways of communication in Japan is through associative thought. In Japan, something that is too logical is stiff, unnatural, stilted.[9]

Seidensticker learned how not to be ronri-teki.[clarification needed][citation needed]

He published his autobiographical observations in Tokyo Central: A Memoir in 2001. A biography and bibliography are included in a commemorative work created by those whose lives he affected, New Leaves: Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Edward Seidensticker (1993).

After retirement, he divided his time between Honolulu and Tokyo, which he described as "the world's most consistently interesting city."[10] His last hospitalization was caused by cranial injuries sustained during a walk along Ueno Park's Shinobazu Pond, very near his home. Following four months in a coma, he died at age 86 in Tokyo.[citation needed]


Selected works[edit]




  1. ^ a b c Kamiya, Setsuko (28 August 2007). "‘Genji’ translator Seidensticker dies". The Japan Times. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  2. ^ "The tale of Murasaki Shikibu," The Economist (London). December 23, 1999.
  3. ^ Associated Press. "Leading translator of Japanese literature, Edward Seidensticker, dies in Tokyo," International Herald Tribune (Asia Pacific). August 27, 2007.
  4. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (31 August 2007). "Edward Seidensticker, Translator, Is Dead at 86". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 October 2015. 
  5. ^ Cameron, Deborah. "Saying goodnight to Shakespeare's sweet Prince in Japanese could take until the morning," Sydney Morning Herald. June 3, 2006.
  6. ^ Shriver, Lionel. "The wisdom of stones," Telegraph (London). September 3, 2006.
  7. ^ "National Book Awards – 1971". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
    There was a "Translation" award from 1967 to 1983.
  8. ^ Seidensticker's last work, supervising translation of a book
  9. ^ "Donald Richie Tells His Fifty-Year 'Tokyo Story,'" Japan Foundation Newsletter (Tokyo). Vol 30, No. 1 (October/November 2004), p. 2.
  10. ^ Parry, Lloyd. "Tokyo: The city that's stranger than fiction," Independent (London) June 25, 2000.
  11. ^ University of Hawaii, honorary degree, Edward Seidensticker
  12. ^ Japan Foundation Award, 1984
  13. ^ Kirkup, James. "Obituary: Fumio Niwa," Independent (London). April 28, 2005.

Further reading[edit]