In Memoriam: Edwin McClellan, Noted for Translations of Japanese Literature

Edwin McClellan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of East Asian Language and Literature, whose translation of Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro” helped make its Japanese author known in the West, died in Hamden, Connecticut on April 27. The cause was lung cancer.

There will be a memorial service for Edwin McClellan in Battell Chapel on May 31 at 2 p.m.

McClellan was born in Kobe, Japan, in 1925 to a British father, an early representative of Lever Brothers in Japan, and a Japanese mother. His mother and older brother died when he was two. McClellan and his father were repatriated to Britain in 1942 aboard the Tatsuta Maru, a passenger liner requisitioned by the Japanese navy (and later torpedoed by a U.S. submarine) to repatriate British nationals from throughout Southeast Asia.

In London, McClellan taught Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies as part of the war effort. At 18, he joined the Royal Air Force, hoping to become a pilot, but his fluency in Japanese made him more useful to allied intelligence. He spent the years 1944-1947 in Washington, D.C., analyzing intercepted Japanese communications.

In 1948, he went to the University of St. Andrews, where he earned a degree in British history and met his future wife, Rachel Elizabeth Pott. At St. Andrews he also met the noted political theorist Russell Kirk, who took him on as his graduate student at Michigan State University. Two years later, McClellan transferred to the University of Chicago to work with economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek. McClellan appealed to Hayek to write his doctoral dissertation on the novelist Natsume Soseki, whose work was much admired in Japan but unknown in the West. To persuade Hayek of Soseki’s importance as a writer and interpreter of Japanese modernity, McClellan translated Soseki’s novel “Kokoro” into English. McClellan’s definitive translation of “Kokoro” was published in 1957.

Awarded his doctorate in 1957, McClellan taught English at the University of Chicago until 1959 when he was asked to create a program in Japanese studies, housed in the university’s Oriental Institute. He became full professor and founding chair of the Department of Far Eastern Languages and Civilizations in 1965, and later was made the Carl Darling Buck Professor. In 1972, he moved to Yale and served as chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature 1973-1982 and 1988-1991. He was appoinited as the Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies in 1979, the first chair at a U.S. university to be endowed by a Japanese sponsor. In 1999, McClellan was named a Sterling Professor.

McClellan was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977. In 1998 he was honored by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon. His other major awards include the Kikuchi Kan Prize for literature in 1994, the Noma Literary Translation Prize in 1995 and the Association for Asian Studies Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies in 2005.

In addition to his extensive committee work at Chicago and Yale, McClellan served on the Board of the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars, the American Advisory Committee of the Japan Foundation, the American Oriental Society, National Endowment for the Humanities, the editorial board of the Journal of Japanese Studies, and visiting committees in East Asian studies at Harvard and Princeton.

His publications include translations of novels by Natsume Soseki (in addition to “Kokoro,” “Grass on the Wayside”) and Shiga Naoya (“A Dark Night’s Passing”); the translation of a memoir by Yoshikawa Eiji; a book of essays, “Two Japanese Novelists: Soseki and Toson”; and a biography of 19th-century Japanese “bluestocking” Shibue Io, “Woman in a Crested Kimono.”

A festschrift published in his honor by the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, notes: “Among McClellan’s students his seminars have become lore. … The depth and breadth of readings these seminars required were a revolution in pedagogy when McClellan first began them over 20 years ago; and they continue to represent an ideal of graduate training in the field. … He taught his students to ask the most fundamental questions about the literary imagination: how language functions within the history of literary forms and in the context of society, history, politics and the existential yearnings of a singular imagination.”

McClellan remained a British citizen until his death. His wife, Rachel, died in January of this year, He is succeeded by a son, Andrew, of Belmont, Massachusetts; a daughter, Sarah, of Somerville, Massachusetts; and five grandsons.

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