William Scott Wilson: World Renowned Translator of Classic Samurai Texts
Sometimes life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, as John Lennon so famously observed. William Scott Wilson (BAJS ’73, SILP ’74) came to the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies (as MIIS was known in the early decades) in 1970 to master Chinese, but ended up switching to the Japanese program. Searching for a good translation project for his thesis he discovered Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by the 18th century warrior Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Explains William: “It really got me!”
After graduating he moved to a farmhouse in Japan with his two children, with the intention of continuing the translation that began as his thesis. “It was probably a little crazy for a single parent,” he shares, adding that he had come into an inheritance that helped fund this adventure. His translation wound up in the lap of a large Japanese publishing house. “The chief editor told me that this was an important book and they wanted to publish it but that it would not sell,” he tells us laughingly. The book was published in 1979 and has never gone out of print since. It has been a hit among martial arts enthusiasts as well as a cult classic after it was featured in director Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog starring Forrest Whitaker as a hitman who follows its teachings strictly.
“I got really lucky,” says William modestly, despite being hailed by the American Literary Translator’s Association as “today’s foremost translator of classic Samurai texts.” He continued translating for the same publishing company for thirty-five years from his home in Florida, including a 4000-page novel that consisted of nine volumes in Japanese that took him close to three years to complete. “Monterey was a good place to live,” says William, fondly recalling the small cottage his family lived in and the buckets of squid that fishermen gave eternally hungry students for free. It was also the beginning of a very good life and rewarding career.