Philip Gabriel, Professor of Japanese, Wins Prize for Translation of Literature

June 7, 2001

Philip Gabriel, an associate professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at the UA, has won the Columbia University Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture 2001 award for best translation of modern Japanese literature published in English.

The Keene Center's Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Award honors his translation of "Life in the Cul-de-Sac (Gunsei)" by Senji Kuroi, published by Stone Bridge Press. The translation award will be presented at a ceremony at Columbia University in the spring of 2002.

Gabriel's award-winning translation was published in the United States in April. In addition to the Kuroi novel, Gabriel's translations of Haruki Murakami's work of nonfiction, "Underground" (co-translated with Alfred Birnbaum, Vintage International) and Murakami's novel "Sputnik Sweetheart" (Alfred A. Knopf Publishers) have also been published.

"Life in the Cul-de-Sac" is considered Kuroi's masterpiece, and won the coveted Tanizaki Prize for Literature in 1984. Kuroi had never been translated into English before. The book's publisher, Stone Bridge Press of Berkeley, California, specializes in books about Japan and Japanese culture.

Gabriel's work as a translator has also been recognized in Japan. The Association for 100 Japanese Books, which promotes the publication of translations of modern Japanese classics, partially underwrote the publication of his translation of "Life in the Cul-de-Sac," and will be sending Gabriel "Feathers and Wings," one of Kuroi's latest novels, to read for possible future translation.

When news of the Keene translation award appeared May 1 in the Tokyo "Shimbun," one of Japan's leading newspapers, Kuroi immediately contacted Gabriel by email to express his happiness at the news.

"The good thing about translating living authors is that you can communicate with them, ask them questions," says Gabriel. "Mr. Kuroi was very helpful in responding to my questions and concerns. One question we worked on together involved characters' names. Two characters' names that were very different in Japanese writing were spelled similarly in English. To avoid confusion, I suggested we change the name of one of them in the English version, and Kuroi gave his assent."

"Japanese society has the reputation of being the most literate in the world. The number of books published per capita per year is one of the highest in the world," says Gabriel. Japanese magazines and newspapers regularly publish serialized fiction. Life in the Cul-de-Sac was published in serial form in the literary journal Gunzo over a period of two years - the same time that the novel's action takes - before it came out as a book.

In addition, Japanese writers study western literatures. "Life in the Cul-de-Sac" is a novel of linked stories in the Japanese format called "rensaku shosetsu," influenced, according to Gabriel, by Kuroi's reading of Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio." Gabriel says he consistently learns a great deal about Russian and American literature by reading Japanese literature.

Gabriel spent seven years teaching in Japan in the late 1970's and 1980s after having earned an undergraduate degree in Chinese, and later a Master's degree in Japanese. When he was accepted into Cornell University's doctoral program in Japanese, he asked a friend, Professor Tsuneo Kageyama, which Japanese authors and books Kageyama would recommend that he read. Kageyama recommended Kuroi, Toshio Shimao, and Murakami. Gabriel wrote his dissertation on Shimao, and has translated work of the other two.

Donald Keene, considered the dean of Japanese literary studies in the U.S., wrote of a novel by Sawako Ariyoshi, "Kokotsu No Hito" ("The Twilight Years"), that it gives the most "convincing ... picture(s) of what daily life is actually like for most people living in Tokyo today." Gabriel believes the same is true of "Life in the Cul de Sac," which depicts a neighborhood of four suburban middle-class Japanese families. He writes in the translator's afterword that the novel "highlights two main issues of concern not just in Japan but in all industrialized countries - the loss of community and the changing roles of women. Instead of the vaunted Japanese 'group ethic,' 'Life in the Cul-de-Sac' depicts a society of disconnected individuals, of monads cut off from meaningful relationships within their family and with those around them."

Gabriel received his doctorate in East Asian Literature in 1993 at Cornell University. He is the author of "Mad Wives and Island Dreams: Shimao Toshio and the Margins of Japanese Literature" (University of Hawaii Press, 1999), which received a 2000 Choice Award, and the co-editor of "Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan" (with Professor Stephen Snyder, University of Hawaii Press, 1999). Gabriel is the translator of numerous works, including Masahiko Shimada's "Dream Messenger" (Kodansha International, 1992), Haruki Murakami's "South of the Border, West of the Sun" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), and three Murakami short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker in recent years.

Gabriel is currently translating "Somersault," a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the1994 Nobel Prize in Literature. Gabriel is also writing a book on spirituality in contemporary Japanese literature.