René Sieffert

Japanologist who translated the 'Ten Thousand Leaves' of the 'Manyÿshû'
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As an epigraph to his monumental five-volume translation into French of the great eighth-century poetry anthology the Manyôshû, the celebrated French Japanologist René Sieffert prints these moving words by an anonymous reader of The Tale of Genji (1202):



René Sieffert, Japanologist: born Aix la Chapelle, Belgium 4 August 1923; died Paris 13 February 2004.



As an epigraph to his monumental five-volume translation into French of the great eighth-century poetry anthology the Manyôshû, the celebrated French Japanologist René Sieffert prints these moving words by an anonymous reader of The Tale of Genji (1202):

If you compose a poem, either in our language, or in Chinese, your name will forever be associated with it, and whoever reads you will enjoy the feeling of being in your immediate presence, right there beside him - which is indeed the most moving experience one can ever imagine.

The same might be said of all that René Sieffert wrote. He was a mild scholar, with the saving grace of a sense of gentle humour - enchanting when it keeps popping up in some otherwise daunting scholarly work of commentary or translation. So the introduction and tightly packed page after page of fiddling footnotes in his translation of that ancient collection of poems are gardens of unexpected delights that reward the reader with a shared smile of comic recognition.

He started translating the Manyôshû's "Ten Thousand Leaves" quite casually, one or two from time to time, until to his surprise he found he had done them all, and began work on the grand edition whose first three volumes did not appear until 1997, with the help of the Japan Foundation and Unesco.

Sieffert was born at Aachen (Aix la Chapelle) in Moselle, on the borders of Belgium, in 1923; the town was under Belgian control, but later came back into German territory. People born on frontiers are by nature and necessity peculiarly disposed to absorb languages that are not their own - which is why Britain has few good foreign-language speakers.

He went to study Mathematics at the University of Strasburg, in its wartime location at Clermont-Ferrand, where he had the good fortune to meet Charles Hagenauer, the creator of modern Japanology in France; under Hagenauer's guidance, he began studying Japanese, graduating in it at the Ecole des Langues Orientales in Paris in 1946 - where he was to spend all his working life. From 1950 to 1954, he held a scholarship at the Maison Franco-Japonaise in Tokyo. He at first intended to work as an ethnologist, and met Yanagita Kunio, the founder of ethno-folklore studies in Japan, and joined his study team at the Kurama Fire Festival.

His research into spectacles of traditional folklore led him to the Noh theatre of the Kongo school in Kyoto, the only one left standing after the air-raids. On his return from Japan, Sieffert gave lectures on the Noh which deeply influenced avant-garde theatre directors like Jean Vilar and Jean-Louis Barrault.

His work on the Noh brought him to the Manyôshû. He translated the great haiku poet Basho's travel diaries (1976) and his haiku (1983) as well as the kabuki dramas of Chikamatsu (1991-92) and the marvellous Le Dit du Genji (1988).

The completion of the five-volume edition of the Manyôshû was the achievement of a lifetime's work and ambition, though he regretted that he had not had time to make the annotations to volume five.

James Kirkup

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