Curled up in his German grandfather’s library, the young Charles De Wolf looked up from the pages of Goethe to dream of the cobblestoned streets of Europe.
At the age of 15, he left his home in California to live a few years with relatives in Germany. “I never finished American high school — I went straight from a German high school to the University of California at Berkeley in the wild days of the ’60s,” De Wolf recalls. “I went back to Europe as a university exchange student in my junior year and improved my French.”
Fluent in both languages, a Latinist with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek and Italian and admittedly Eurocentric, De Wolf decided to learn Spanish by joining the Peace Corps after he graduated with a degree in comparative literature. Despite his hope to be sent to Latin America, De Wolf’s life instead forever veered to Asia.
“It was 1967. We were only the third group to be sent to South Korea, and the country was just emerging from Third World status. I remember it all in black and white, since the photographs of that time were in black and white,” he says. “There were beggars on the streets and life was rather grim. We never would have guessed South Korea would turn out to be such a prosperous, democratic country.”
De Wolf could also never have predicted a lifetime in Japan. For the 66-year-old translator, writer and retired professor emeritus of Keio University, Europe still holds fascination, but “Japan is home.”
While in South Korea, De Wolf applied his talent in languages. He studied Korean, although it proved, at first, a challenge. “All the Western European languages seem like dialects of each other when you have fooled around with Korean and Chinese and Japanese.
“I became hooked on the Chinese characters. I started learning Chinese characters soon after my arrival and would eventually sit in coffee shops, struggling through Korean newspapers, which then contained more Chinese characters,” he recalls. “The Chinese-Korean character dictionaries were badly printed, and the characters themselves were not of the simplified variety. I realized Korean syntax is remarkably similar to Japanese syntax.”
When his time with the Peace Corps ended, De Wolf hoped to further his command of written Chinese by studying Japanese. “I decided to come to Japan to learn the language, stay a few years and then go back to the States for graduate school.”
He first visited Tokyo in 1969 before returning to stay at the end of 1970. The capital was seething with Japanese literary history. “It was just the time Yukio Mishima exited the world quite grandly,” De Wolf remembers. “I was already quite interested in all Japanese literature at the time. When I was in Japan on holiday in early 1969, I wandered into a foreign bookstore, and I saw Edward Seidensticker’s translation of (Yasunari) Kawabata’s “Snow Country” on display. I loved Seidensticker’s introduction in particular. It was not the type of literature I thought I would like, but I was entranced by the novel, and I said to myself, ‘I want to read this in the original.’ “
Eventually, De Wolf would. He found a job in Tokyo teaching French and English, and soon accepted his first translation work. “I remember translating a contract on gold bullion from Japanese to French, and that was a good case of not knowing what I was doing on several levels.”
Determined to improve his translation ability, he worked harder at the language. He soon met his future wife, Keiko, and his ties to Japan strengthened.
The young couple left in 1973 for De Wolf to pursue his Ph.D in linguistics at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. There, he could indulge his love for languages, studying Chinese, Tagalog and Indonesian, along with three other Austronesian languages. As part of his graduate program, he and his wife lived in Palau, a small island nation 3,200 km south of Tokyo, to strengthen his fluency in Palauan.
Their return in 1978 to Japan added a third passenger to the flight, their first of four children. De Wolf accepted a position at Chiba University, but continued translating in his spare time.
In those early days, De Wolf’s translations were mostly nonfiction. He was asked to write a weekly column for the Asahi Evening News — a Japanese to English version of Konnichi Mondai (Today’s Problem), a daily column in the Asahi Shimbun. De Wolf would chose one piece each week for the English paper: “I sometimes included rather outrageous commentary or translation notes — I had fun with etymologies and explaining grammar.”
The column ran for 18 years, and De Wolf gradually built up a large body of nonfiction translation work. Yet his love for literature made it inevitable he would one day tackle literary translation.
“I realized even back then that I wanted to translate fiction. But I didn’t have much self confidence, so I thought I would find a lesser known writer, someone who had not been translated before, and break in that way.”
A meeting with Seidensticker revised this strategy. “I was in a huge lecture hall in Chiba University, attending a speech by the famous translator, and I asked him if he saw any value in translating nonliterary works, as a way to introduce Japanese culture. The lecture was all in Japanese, and I was very nervous. He said to me, ‘You’ll have a hard time selling it. You can try, but I don’t have any interest in it.’ “
De Wolf decided to follow this advice and his own interest in classical Japanese literature. Although his first literary translation was in the late 1980s, a short story by Ayako Sono, De Wolf really looks to the publication in 2003 of “Tales of Days Gone By: A Selection from Konjaku Monogatari-shu” as his first major literary translation.
“I realized you must really like the work you are doing, or you must at least have some respect for it in order to do a good job translating it. I was always interested in classical Japanese. ‘Konjaku’ is a rather clunky style, but the stories are interesting and I liked doing those.”
De Wolf has also translated excerpts from “The Tale of Genji,” and works by various modern writers, in addition to the short story collection “Mandarins: Stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa.”
“What appealed to me about Japanese literature was the subtlety with which the drama of human relations is described. I had tended to look to European and American literature for ‘grand ideas.’ I suppose I sometimes wanted an Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov-like character expounding in Japanese, but that’s not, on the whole, what Japanese literature is about.”
After a brief sting of teaching back in the United States, De Wolf shifted his teaching career to Keio University in 1995, lecturing primarily in Japanese and teaching linguistics and culture.
He earned the honor of professor emeritus when he officially retired last March. He also received the Prince Takamado Distinguished Scholar Award from the Asiatic Society in 2010.
Japan has truly become home for De Wolf; he took Japanese citizenship over 20 years ago. “All my children have Japanese citizenship, and my wife of course, but more importantly, I feel differently now. With the citizenship, I feel that I am more a part of the system, that I belong here too and have a responsibility here.”
Although De Wolf continues to teach part-time, he now has more time to pursue related passions. He recently completed his first original short story, “Borne by the Wind,” which will be published as part of an anthology of new young adult literature. To be released on March 10 to mark the one-year anniversary the following day of the Great East Japan Earthquake, “Tomo” features works written in English by writers — both Japanese and non-Japanese somehow connected with Japan — and proceeds from the anthology will be used to assist educational needs for young victims of the quake and tsunami.
Although De Wolf was “delighted” his original story was accepted, he admits penning his own fiction is a greater challenge than translating others: “If you translate something and it is not well-received, or does not sell well, you can say it is the fault of the original writer, or you can say, “Well, not many people are interested in Japanese literature.’ But if it is your own book, it truly is baring your own soul. It is a much more emotionally demanding task.”
Philologist De Wolf may also add one more entry in his vast lexicon: “I’ve puttered about with other languages too, including Turkish and Mongolian. Off and on I’ve tried to learn Irish Gaelic, but I’ve pretty much given up. The one language I still have a faint hope of learning properly is Hebrew.”
Although De Wolf hopes to write more original fiction, he will continue to enjoy languages and to translate: “Academics still look down on translation. You don’t get as much credit for doing a fiction translation as you do for writing a book on the original work. But to me it is much harder to do a good translation of a fine piece of literature than writing a collection of essays on it.
“I just like translation. It is hard. Sometimes you get stuck with 50 pages to go and not a lot of time. But you learn so much from doing it.”