The New York Times has run an interesting article about Donald Keene. After last year's tsunami and nuclear disaster, Keene announced that he was moving to Japan permanently, publicly going against the tide of foreigners who couldn't wait to get out of the country. Not only was he moving to Japan, he was going to become a Japanese citizen, one of the least welcoming countries for immigrants in the world. He listed for the Times reporter "what he called the absurd requirements imposed upon him to take Japanese citizenship, including documentation to prove his completion of elementary school in New York City. Still...Dr. Keene’s application was quickly approved. To become Japanese, Dr. Keene, who is unmarried, had to relinquish his American citizenship."
Keene who is 90, taught for years at Columbia University and, because I studied Japanese at Columbia, I have been asked whether I knew him. I knew him, but I never took a course with him (I have heard him lecture on Japanese literature at New York's Japan Society, however). I only spoke to him once, and that was on the 116th Street downtown subway platform where we were both waiting for a train.
One of my Japanese teachers had told my class that Dr. Keene said that when he translates, he first does a word-for-word translation to make sure he's accounted for every little element in the sentence. Japanese can be a challenge because a one- or two-syllable grammatical unit can change the meaning entirely. I wondered if that were true. Keene's fluency seemed to me good enough he could simply read a sentence and convert it to correct. A word-for-word translation can leave you with utterly fractured English.
I recognized Dr. Keene on the platform, introduced myself, and said I was curious about something my Japanese professor had told me. Once Keene established that I was not one of his graduate students looking for a graded paper, he warmed up considerably. He said, yes, he did still go through every sentence word by word.
I told him how much I'd enjoyed his translations. (He has translated and written about Japanese fiction; his books fill more than one shelf of my library.) He told me he liked Japanese because it has such a rich literature. He would never exhaust the material to translate, unlike a friend of his who, I think, specialized in Burmese literature. Fifteen years later and he'd read everything written in the language.
“You cannot stop being an American after 89 years,” Keene told the Times reporter. “But I have
become a Japanese in many ways. Not pretentiously, but naturally.”