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Edward Seidensticker, 86; pioneering scholar, translator of Japanese literature

August 29, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Edward Seidensticker, a pioneering scholar and translator of Japanese literature, including the epic "Tale of Genji," has died in Tokyo. He was 86.

Seidensticker died Sunday after slipping into a coma after a head injury suffered in April, said Tetsumi Yamaguchi, a longtime associate and caregiver.

He translated more than 100 literary works including "The Sound of the Mountain," "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.

"Without his translations, the Western world would not know about much of these major Japanese authors," Haruo Shirane, a professor of Japanese literature at Columbia University who studied with Seidensticker, told The Times on Tuesday.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 31, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page Metro Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Seidensticker obituary: The obituary of Edward Seidensticker in Wednesday's California section incorrectly identified Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the 11th century epic "Tale of Genji" as a courtesan. She was a court lady in service of the empress.

Seidensticker is also credited with a critically acclaimed 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. Seidensticker worked 15 years on the translation, which was published in 1975.

"You could feel the emotions and the nuances that the original writer wanted to convey" in Seidensticker's translations, said Andrew Horvat, a Japanese language professor at Tokyo Keizai University.

"He did more to make Japanese people appear human to foreigners than all of Japan's public diplomacy combined," Horvat said.

Though there have been other translations of the "Tale of Genji" since Seidensticker's pioneering work, his translations of Tanizaki and Kawabata have not been duplicated and "are still the standards in the field," Shirane said.

A native of Castle Rock, Colo., Seidensticker earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Colorado and studied Japanese at the Navy's Japanese Language School before serving in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He first traveled to Japan in September 1945, a month after the end of the war, to serve as a translator for the U.S. occupation forces. After his discharge he worked for the Foreign Service as an educator, translator and writer.

He did postgraduate work at Harvard and studied literature at Tokyo University before launching a career in translation and literary criticism. He also held teaching posts at Sophia University in Tokyo and at Stanford, Columbia and the University of Michigan in the United States. He retired from academic life in 1986.

Over the last 15 years, his interest turned to the cultural history of Tokyo. His original works include a two-volume history of Tokyo titled "Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake" and "Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake." He also wrote essays on various parts of the city.

In Japan his contributions to the field of Japanese literature and culture were acknowledged by numerous awards, notably the Tokyo City Cultural Award and the Order of the Rising Sun.

For years Seidensticker split his time between Tokyo and Hawaii, but he took up permanent residence in Japan in the spring of 2006.

He is survived by a niece and a nephew.

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