Japanese Professor Van Gessel’s Journey to an Imperial Decoration

PROVO, Utah (September 27, 2018)—BYU Japanese professor Van Gessel shared a translation of an old Japanese proverb: “Best of all when traveling is to have a companion. Best of all in life is kindness.” For Gessel, this traveling companion took the form of the Japanese novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō. As with any great traveling companion, Silence led Gessel on a journey that shaped his life, introduced him to incredible people and opportunities, and taught him about faith and Christ. Most recently, Silence guided Gessel to a once in a lifetime recognition.

Following his lecture titled, “Silence as My Traveling Companion: My Journeys with Endō, Rodrigues, and Martin Scorsese,” Gessel was awarded an Imperial decoration from Japan, known as the “Order of the Rising Sun.” The Japanese government awards this recognition to those who make significant contributions to international relations with Japan and promote Japanese culture in their fields. As Gessel remarked in his lecture, translators—often ignored or criticized—do not pursue their work looking for critical acclaim, and his journey to becoming the recipient of an Imperial decoration did not begin with intentions to win awards but rather as a graduate student. After serving a mission in Japan, he fell in love with a Japanese novel that Gessel now says “will never leave [his] side.”

Gessel described his discovery of the novel, saying, “When I first read Silence… it became my first love.” A college-aged Gessel wrote a letter to the novel’s author, Shūsaku Endō. Never expecting the letter to be read by its intended recipient, Gessel praised and admired the book, then wrote that he would love to someday translate one of Endō’s other works. This letter was not ignored as expected but met with a friendly response. Soon enough, Gessel had met Endō and, in time, became his official translator. In spending time with the author, Gessel said, “I learned much from my association with him about the things that truly matter in this life… things that have to do with the ways in which we treat one another, the ways in which we lift and support one another, and the ways in which we love one another free of judgment or selfish interest.”

Though at times its influence seemed to wane, Silence continued to be as a key player in the events of Gessel’s life. In 1995, Gessel was approached by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and asked to help bring Silence to the stage. Following this experience, years passed before Silence returned to change Gessel’s life once again. In 2011, Gessel opened his inbox to discover an email from the assistant to the film director Martin Scorsese. The email informed him of Scorsese’s plan to make a film adaptation of Silence, and asked Gessel to be a literary advisor for the project. This email, which was quickly and enthusiastically responded to, marked the beginning of a new chapter in the journey.

Beginning in 2013, Gessel engaged in a two-year email conversation with Scorsese about the English translation of Silence and Endō’s true meaning and intention. Gessel described details he was asked to clarify, such as “The English translation says there’s a moth flying around the candle, can you check if it really says ‘moth’ in the Japanese original?” His consulting covered much larger issues as well. Silence follows the experiences of a Spanish priest, Rodrigues, who upon visiting Japan discovers a secret community of Christians who are forced to hide in order to avoid persecution and punishment for practicing their religion. Rodrigues grows to love these faithful disciples, but the Christians and Rodrigues are soon discovered and captured by the Japanese government. After trying to convince Rodrigues to apostatize, the Japanese authorities present Rodrigues with a torturous choice. If Rodrigues will trample upon a picture of Christ, thereby renouncing his faith, the authorities will release the Japanese Christians. Rodrigues, as Gessel states, must either “maintain his identity as a priest, or commit a very painful act of love that would save others.” Faced with this difficult decision, Rodrigues fervently prays to God, demanding that He speak to him, breaking the silence with which his prayers have thus far been met. Yet the heavens remain silent.

Gessel lamented that because of this moment and the title of the novel, Silence is often mistaken as a commentary on the silence of God. He argued, however (with the support of the author Endō), that the important silence is that of Rodrigues when God’s silence is finally broken. As Rodrigues lifts his foot to step on the depiction of Christ, Christ’s face speaks to him. In the English translation of Silence, this moment is incorrectly translated to words of anger and frustration, a harsh demand to “Trample!” Gessel offers an alternate translation, more closely aligned with the meaning found in the original Japanese. Rather than yelling, Christ softly consoles Rodrigues saying, “It’s alright to trample. Go ahead and step on me. I know better than anyone else how your foot aches. It’s alright to trample. I was born into this world to be trampled upon by you and by all of mankind. I bore my cross so I could share in your pain.” In this moment, it is Rodrigues and his own will that are silenced, allowing room for the voice and will of God. This is the difference in translation that Gessel worked hardest to put forward, and his success in this collaboration with Scorsese brought a beautiful display of Christ’s love to the screen.

This central message of love and Christ is the reason Silence has remained a constant companion for Gessel. “This novel has stayed with me constantly, taking on new forms and meanings that continue to shape my beliefs in a divine being who will also never leave my side,” Gessel said. Though Silence has brought Gessel amazing opportunities, recognition, and now an Imperial decoration, its true value as a companion is that through its message of Christ’s love and sacrifice, it has provided Gessel with not only what is “best of all when traveling,” but also what is “best of all in life…kindness.”

Emma Ebert (Editing & Publishing ’20)