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Thursday, Sept. 23, 1999

Translator bridges Japan-Spain gap


SEVILLE, Spain -- Seville in the summer is so hot, they say, that even the dogs don't go outside. The athletes didn't at the recent World Championships, at least from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. The white walls of the city reflect the southern Spanish sun down the narrow corridors that resemble wintry Alpine passes without the cold.

At night the weather finally cools. The crowds venture out along the promenade, and the flamenco clapping starts in the Gypsy Quarter across the Guadalquivir River.

Dr. Fernando Rodriguez-Izquierdo at the University of Seville lives in a very different world. He prefers wandering through shaded moss gardens and listening to the sounds of frogs plopping into ponds or delving into 17th-century amorous adventure and some modern psychopathic obsession. He does all of this in his air-conditioned corner office, as a translator of Japanese literature and haiku.

To date, he's translated six Japanese classics, including "Botchan" by Soseki Natsume and "Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (Life of an Amorous Man)" by Ihara Saikaku. In 1996 Izquierdo won the Noma Prize, sponsored by Kodansha, for his translation of Kobo Abe's "Tanin no Kao (Face of Another)." He is the first Spanish translator to win the award.

Outside his office window, the Muslim-influenced courtyards run through the middle of the university, one after another, in an inward retreat from the sun. Suspended between them, high in the air, are cream-colored sails billowing in the wind and acting as a giant sunshade to the fountains and people below.

Inside, it is cramped. Izquierdo's office desk is stacked with obscure papers and books on the verge of avalanching. He has dictionaries in every permutation of Spanish, English, Japanese and more. "Of all these reference books, the most important for finding kanji is my Nelson's," he says, referring to the weighty tome so well known to serious students of the language.

Locked away in his ivory tower, Izquierdo is a loner. For each Japanese classic that comes down the pipeline, he has an arduous journey to make; at the end of it, the reader will probably not remember his name. The Nobel Prize winner for literature Camilo Jose Cela said, "Translations . . . which are lacking in expression and move no souls are doomed to failure."

Unlike lesser translators, Izquierdo gives full attention even to the sound of words before he carefully converts them. Still, some words, he finds, are so woven into the culture that they are better left as is, with a footnote. "Imagine how much is lost in a haiku if we just translate the Japanese tsuru as 'crane' or the Spanish toro as 'bull.' "

He says that a big problem with Spanish publishers is that they are not familiar with the Japanese language. After he had finished translating "A Wild Sheep Chase" by Haruki Murakami, for example, the publishers chose a title that gives most Spaniards the impression that they are about to read a hunting manual. The publisher was also not aware, among other things, of the ironical shades of the expression "yare yare," which appears repeatedly in the novel.

What is worse, many of the Spanish translations come indirectly, from English, bypassing the Japanese language altogether. "You can tell, especially with the works of Mishima," he says.

Despite the dearth of Japanese to Spanish translations, there is a great need for them.

"Twenty-four countries in the world speak Spanish," says Izquierdo, becoming momentarily animated. "Spanish is the third most common language in the world. Central and South America are full of people of Japanese origins. The publishing companies consider these countries poor, however, and thus do not target their markets."

Translators, I realize, are great people to interview. As I take notes, Izquierdo gives precise and patient spellings of words I'm not familiar with, accent marks and long vowels included. He also appears quite capable of having an entire conversation about the significance of one word.

Izquierdo first visited Japan wanting to be a Jesuit priest. He ended up in linguistics and graduated from the department of Japanese Literature and Language at Sophia University in Tokyo in 1965.

It's hard to find another translator like him. "You can count the number of Spanish translators on your fingers, and even then that's too many," he says. He knows of one other in Madrid, who is trying to translate "Don Quixote" into Japanese.

With hardly anyone translating Japanese at all, it is all the more appreciated that Izquierdo is so good. It's as if his isolation for the past 25 years at the University of Seville has concentrated his powers.

"There's still not a single Japanese studies department in all of Spain," he says. At Seville University, a haiku class began last year, which Izquierdo teaches one day a week. The rest of the week he is either a Spanish linguistics professor or holed up in his office. He is very content.

It is 2 o'clock. The Spanish heat outside is at full force. Izquierdo must go home to eat lunch and take a siesta until 5 p.m., like the rest of Seville. At last, the outside world has caught up with this expert of the Japanese language.

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