Dennis Keene: Poet and translator
Obituary published in 'The Independent' on Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Dennis Keene was a man of literature through and through. He wrote poetry and wrote about poetry; he read English literature voraciously and lectured on it; he wrote articles and books on Japanese literature and used much of his creative talent translating it. In 1991 his translation of Maruya Saiichi's Rain in the Wind was given a Special Award by the judges of the first Independent Award for Foreign Fiction.
This collection of four stories ranges from action to contemplation of nature to intellectual detective work, and the judges praised Keene's success in "encompassing the lyrical and the demotic with equal ease". He was an exemplary translator, humble before his author but always ensuring that the completed work was a creative whole. He had that rare gift among translators of being able to stay close to the changing moods and rhythms of the original but at the same time give the reader the satisfaction of having read a novel rather than a translated novel; maybe this was because Keene was a close friend of both his principal authors, Kita Morio and Maruya Saiichi; maybe it was because he both loved the literature he was translating and loved to be writing literature himself.
Dennis Keene was born in 1934 and grew up in Richmond, Surrey, where he attended Richmond and East Sheen County Grammar School for Boys. While there, at the age of 16, he first encountered the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and was overwhelmed by the universality of its reference, a prose poem on the way a child experiences death bringing back memories of the loss of the family dog eight years previously. It was here also that he first met the future scholar and critic John Carey and they remained lifelong friends, later going to Oxford together.
At Oxford, Keene read English Language and Literature at St John's College and immersed himself in extracurricular poetry. With Peter Ferguson he became joint editor of Oxford Poetry, the literary journal whose editors have included Robert Graves, Anthony Thwaite and John Fuller. After Oxford he became a British Council lecturer in Singapore and Malaysia, but a turning point in his life came when he was appointed Lecturer in English Language and Literature at Kyoto University in 1961. He met his future wife Keiko in Kyoto and they were married there in 1962. Japan was now firmly a part of his life.
After a year at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, during which Dennis and Keiko unsuccessfully tried to find Rimbaud's house in Harar, there came another job in Japan and another turning point in Keene's life: a lectureship in English Literature at Kyushu University in Fukuoka.
Here a chance visit to a bookseller on the way to the dentist yielded the prize of the novel Ghosts by Kita Morio and the start of Keene's love affair with Japanese literature. His translation of Ghosts won a real prize some 20 years later (the Noma Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature in 1992). This novel, which follows a boy's growing awareness of his own sexuality in an atmosphere saturated by natural references, was a revelation to Keene, who compared his response to what he felt when reading Rimbaud and Proust.
For this love affair to mature Keene felt he had to return to Oxford and write a doctoral thesis on Japanese literature. I was appointed his supervisor. Dennis's namesake, Donald Keene, the leading Western scholar of Japanese literature, once asked me what it was like supervising Dennis Keene. I described my task as restraining genius. I would spend hours listening in awe to this pupil, as he produced insight after insight from his by now encyclopaedic knowledge of modern Japanese novels. My only function was to help him channel these into a mould that was acceptable for an academic thesis. He was later, in 1980, to publish two impressive books, a monograph on the subject of his thesis, Yokomitsu Riichi: modernist, and an anthology, The Modern Japanese Prose Poem.
During this period Keene also published two books of poetry with Carcanet: Surviving (1980) and Universe and Other Poems (1984). In the note that Keene adds to Surviving he supposes that "the poems remain essentially symbolist". But "the reader will find the language ordinary". Ordinary yes, but brimming with the emotions that he felt so strongly – for example, these lines from "Burdens", about the death of a (his?) mother's brother in the First World War:
Did not go out. Her brother (uncle) did,
But nothing clearly him nor his came back.
Apart from a brief period as a full-time writer and translator in the UK, the last 20 years of Dennis Keene's career were spent in Tokyo as a professor at the prestigious Japan Women's University. After retirement in 1993 he and Keiko returned to Britain, where their daughter Shima was living. Dennis continued writing and translating; Keiko, a ballet and dance critic, was writing by his side. This settled suburban life in Oxford came to an end in 2007 with the onset of the disease that finally took his life.
Dennis Keene, scholar, poet and translator: born London 10 July 1934; Lecturer in English Language and Literature, Kyoto University 1961-63; Professor in English Literature, Haile Selassie I University, Addis Ababa 1964-65; Lecturer in English Literature, Kyushu University 1965-69; Assistant Professor of English Literature, Japan Women's University, Tokyo 1970-76, Professor 1976-81, 1984-93; Part-time Lecturer in English Literature, Tokyo Metropolitan University 1978-79, 1987-88; married 1962 Keiko Kurose (one daughter); died Oxford 30 November 2007.