NEW YORK – When author and translator Roger Pulvers first arrived in Japan in 1967, he could not read or write the language and asked a friend to recommend “the most beautiful Japanese” literature.
“(The friend) said, well, that’s Miyazawa Kenji,” Pulvers explained, recalling his struggles as he spent two hours poring over each page.
Pulvers fell in love with the poet’s writing. While it helped him to improve his grasp of Japanese, it also prompted him to dedicate his life to bringing Miyazawa’s works to a global audience.
Forty-six years later, Pulvers received the 19th Noma Award for the Translation of Japanese Literature for his English translation of Miyazawa’s “Strong in the Rain: Selected Poems.”
“I am very happy to be a medium for his message, even though he (Miyazawa) deserves the award,” the Brooklyn-born Australian said ahead of the recent award ceremony at New York’s Japan Society.
Pulvers, 69, explained that skilled translators dig beneath the words to understand the mindset of the author. His ultimate goal was to have an English audience react identically to Japanese readers.
“To be a translator, you have to not only get under the skin of the writer; you have to get into his heart, into his guts, into his stomach and into his head,” he said, adding it took decades for him to do so.
In 1969, Pulvers traveled to Hanamaki, Miyazawa’s hometown in Iwate Prefecture, and met the poet’s younger brother, Seiroku. The two quickly struck up a friendship and Pulvers learned all about the poet’s background in Tohoku.
“(Seiroku) must be very happy that his brother’s poetry was given such a wonderful prize,” Pulvers said.
Through spending time in Tohoku and meeting the poet’s relatives, Pulvers began to understand how Miyazawa viewed the natural world and our connection to it. After the March 11, 2011, disasters, he saw how the region clung to the words of Miyazawa through the poem “Strong in the Rain,” which celebrates growth through hardship.
“Because Kenji was from Tohoku and his message was all about overcoming grief and empathy, he became the voice of reason and of charity in Japan in the last 2½ years,” he said.
Despite difficulties in translating Miyazawa’s unique style, rhythm and use of local dialect, Pulvers feels proud to have recognized the poet’s literary achievements at a time when most writers considered him “provincial” and a “fantasy author for children.”
Born in 1896, Miyazawa’s works were heavily influenced by his beliefs on animal welfare, including his vegetarian diet, and his Buddhist faith. The poet died in 1933.
“Not only is he the most important Japanese poet of the 21st century, he is a man with vision that reaches well into our own century,” Pulvers said.