drift and panic, under new management and recently deceased translators

Note for a post: somehow, the whole issue of hyperbolic discounting passed by yours truly. But as I've been doing some desultory research, resting here on my laurels, I've run smack into it. Hyperbolic discounting describes an ordering of future preferences which reflects a non-linear and sudden shift in behavior, rather than an incremental and rationally spaced out one. Thus, for instance, the smoker may resolve, today, to quit smoking in the future, knowing that the effect of smoking is killing him, yet not, in fact, quit smoking in the near future, nor show signs of making plans to quit. Hyperbolic discounting is a nice phrase for drift and panic. Which seems to be the m.o. in the U.S., lately, about a lot of bad habits.

I just thought I'd mark the phrase for some future post.

PS – Correspondents have suggested I mention the deaths of two translators. Michael Hamburger, who translated Celan, Hölderlin, and other extremely dense German poets. Friend of Sebald, poet himself, and, according to his obituary, a big fan of East Anglica, Hamburger’s name is one that will be subconsciously familiar to any American who is interested in international lit, since it figured so often on the title page – “translated by” – but not so often (for our imaginary reader) in glorious solitude (“by”), since it is not by his essays and poetry that he is known.

Edward Seidensticker had a larger profile. The relationship between post-war Japan and the U.S. in the fifties and sixties is still somewhat shadowed by Cold War secrecy. Wiener’s recent book on the CIA pointed out that the party that has pretty much ruled Japan as the PRI once ruled Mexico, the Liberal Democrats, were systematically bribed by the Americans up until the seventies. They were bribed partly to violate the constitution that the Americans originally imposed on Japan – such are the vagaries of imperial whim. Running through the fifties was an undercurrent of guilt regarding the way the war was waged against Japan, most notably the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oddly enough, the most massive bombing of civilian targets in history, the US fireboming of Japanese cities, which resulted in at least 600,000 deaths in less than one year, never has been given the queasy fisheye by the American conscience. Perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the proxies. Into this mix of need and guilt stepped various influential go betweens who translated Japanese literature and explained Japanese culture, like Edward Reischauer and Donald Ritchie. Many had studied Japanese, during the war, at the Navy’s Boulder Institute – this is where Donald Keene gained his Japanese, and where Seidensticker gained his. The “Boulder boys” – so named by correspondent Edith Terry – dominated the discourse, post-war, in things Japanese. It is fascinating to see how Cold War culture assimilated and mixed themes that were appropriated and bricoleured against that culture – for instance, Zen, which entered into the American mainstream in the fifties as a sort of Cold War gift, and was quickly adopted by the beats and taken to be a route out of America, a form of inner emigration – before of course it became self-help and a part of Cold War therapy culture.

Seidensticker’s great translating feat is, of course, The Tale of Genji, which puts him in that rare group of translators of the essential books – comparable to Constance Garnett, Antoine Galland, Wilhelm von Schlegel. These are the translators’ translators.