Donald Keene, RIP.

Ben Dooley has an excellent NY Times obit of one of the most prominent translators of our time, Donald Keene; here’s an excerpt focused on how he acquired Japanese:

Born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, Dr. Keene was a child prodigy. Entering Columbia on scholarship in 1938 at 16, he studied the classics of Western literature and honed his talent for languages on French and Greek. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the university.

Two years later, at a midtown bookshop, he first encountered the literature that would define his life, purchasing a 49-cent translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century story of courtly love affairs and other intrigues, often described as the world’s first novel.

The translation “was magical, evoking a beautiful and distant world,” he wrote of the encounter in a 2008 memoir of his relationship with Japan. […] Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Dr. Keene enlisted in the Navy, where he volunteered to study Japanese and began his formal education in the language at the University of California at Berkeley.

His first experience as a translator came in Hawaii, where he worked on routine military reports captured from Japanese units in the Pacific theater. A box of bloodstained diaries from enemy soldiers gave him an initial insight into the emotional lives of the country’s people, he wrote in his memoir, musing that they were “the first Japanese I ever really knew.” […]

Over his career, he translated many of the most important works of Japanese literature into lively and eminently readable English. […] All told, he published around 25 books in English and many more in Japanese and other languages — ranging from academic studies to personal reminisces. Taken together they display a level of erudition and scholarship that made him a giant in his field not just abroad but also in Japan. In 1985, he became the first non-Japanese to receive the Yomiuri Prize for Literature for literary criticism for his historical survey of Japanese diaries, later published in English as “Travelers of the Ages,” a book inspired by the bloody wartime journals he encountered while serving in the Navy.

I’ve now got three translations of The Tale of Genji; I really have to get around to reading it. Thanks, Eric!


  1. Good lord, Eric Hamp too? Thanks for that, I hadn’t known.

  2. U of C was a bit sluggish in getting their tribute to Prof. Hamp up on the web. I think this nice piece from the Albanian press beat them by two or three days.

  3. 95+ is a very respectable age, one by which I suppose the reactions of many people at a remove are going to start being more in the “huh, was he still alive” range.

  4. Brian Joseph’s obit for Hamp at the Log.

Speak Your Mind