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Retired Japanese-Teaching Faculty Member Receives Prestigious Translation Award

Retired professor Van C. Gessel recently received a lifetime-achievement award honoring his work in Japanese translation.

(From left to right) Endo Shusaku, Elizabeth Gessel, and Van C. Gessel in Tokyo, Japan in 1984.
(From left to right) Endo Shusaku, Elizabeth Gessel, and Van C. Gessel in Tokyo, Japan in 1984.

Recently-retired dean of the College of Humanities Van C. Gessel received one of two Lindsley and Masao Miyoshi Translation Prizes on Monday, November 23, 2020. He was awarded for lifetime achievement of modern Japanese fiction translation.

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture, an organization that promotes understanding of Japanese culture in the United States, awarded the prize. The Lindsley and Masao Miyoshi Translation Prize for lifetime achievement is by no means a common award; according to keenecenter.org, “in rare cases, lifetime achievement awards. . . . [are given to] translators with particularly distinguished careers.”

Gessel received his PhD in Japanese literature from Columbia University in 1979He then began his career in Japanese teaching.

“I first taught at my alma mater Columbia University for a year. Then two years at Notre Dame, eight years at UC Berkeley. For a little change of pace, I decided to come to BYU."

During his graduate program, Gessel discovered his love for translation.

Gessel said, “I think what got me into translation was reading a work in English translation of a novel called Silence by Endo Shusaku which is about the persecution of Japanese Christians in Japan in the 17th century. “Having served as a missionary in Japan myself, I [was] able to relate because it focuses on a Catholic priest in Japan in the early 17th century.”

He continued, “I thought, ‘you know, I ought to read some more things by this author,’ and as I started reading more of his work and started reading in Japanese, I thought, ‘well, this guy is really an amazing writer.’”

“So I wrote him a fan letter, never expecting an answer of course, and I actually got a reply. In my letter, I said, ‘sometime I'd like to translate one of your works,’ and he said, ‘well, why don't you go ahead and translate something right now.’”

Gessel said, “I started translating, and I got hooked. I was able to meet [the author, Endo Shusaku and formed a really warm relationship with him and ended up translating eight of his works so far.”

Gessel’s work in Japanese translation has led to many awards, including induction into the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese Emperor. Gessel humbly stated that this is “an honor given to those who have contributed to mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.”

Gessel said, “This [Miyoshi award] isn't something that I applied for. It just kind of came out of the blue. I didn't know I was even being considered for the award.”

Gessel continued, “Occasionally, this Lindsley and Masao Miyoshi prize is given for lifetime achievement, and that happens maybe every two [or] three years. It's done on a case-by-case basis, and that happened to be the one that I was selected for. I was surprised and, of course, honored.”

The Lindsley and Masao Miyoshi Translation Prize is awarded to translators in Japanese literature and poetry from all over the United States. It is quite serendipitous then, that Gessel was joined by a colleague in receiving the award last year.

“They're giving one of these lifetime achievement awards this year for translation of poetry and prose,” Gessel said, “and that award is going to a professor named Steven Carter, who happened to serve in the same mission that I did at the same time. He also taught at BYU for several years. . . . It's interesting that this rarely given prize this year went to two members of the church, who have been translating Japanese for quite a long time.”

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