William F. Sibley, Japanese Scholar, 1941-2009

University of Chicago professor William Ferguson Sibley, a scholar and translator of Japanese literature, died Thursday, May 7. He was 67 and had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer.

Sibley, Associate Professor Emeritus in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, is perhaps best known for his work, The Shiga Hero, said Edward Shaughnessy, the Creel Distinguished Service Professor of Early China and Chairman of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

The book, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1979, introduced Western readers to the fiction of Shiga Naoya, one of Japan's foremost modern writers. The Shiga Hero analyzed Shiga's psychological portraits of his hero and demonstrated a close link between this fictional hero and Shiga himself. Sibley concluded the book with translations of 10 of Shiga's short stories, showing the hero at various stages of his development.

Writing about the book shortly after it was published, Paul Anderer, a professor of Asian humanities at Columbia University, said, The Shiga Hero is a valuable book, not simply because it is an original study of an important Japanese writer, but because it was a breakthrough in Japanese literary criticism. More than any other recent work in the field, wrote Anderer, The Shiga Hero quickens our sense of what is possible as foreign critics of Japanese literature.

A gifted translator, Sibley produced numerous other translations of modern Japanese literature, especially those of short stories and essays. He translated several important selections of Japanese gay literature and correspondence. He was also a deft and inventive translator of 18th-19th-century prose, challenging for its verbal play and range of reference. Sibley's translation of "On Farting," a piece of mock erudition by physician, inventor, and writer Hiraga Gengai (1728-80), has helped make Vol. 9 of Select Papers from the Center of East Asian Studies of the University a best seller. It now circulates as part of an "episodic festschrift" for Howard Hibbet, with whom Sibley studied at Harvard.

Born June 9, 1941, in Cambridge, Mass., Sibley graduated from Harvard University (A.B.,'64, M.A.,'65) and the University of Chicago (Ph.D.,'71). As a graduate student, his dissertation, also titled "The Shiga Hero," won the Marc Perry Galler Prize for the Best Dissertation in the Humanities.

After serving as an assistant professor for one year at the University of Rochester, he began teaching at the University of Michigan. He taught at Michigan from 1969 until 1978, when he returned to Chicago as an Associate Professor of Japanese Literature. He later served as chairman of the department of Far Eastern Languages and Civilizations (which was later renamed East Asian Languages and Civilizations) from 1984 to 1990, and then again from 1993 to 1994. He retired from his teaching position at the end of 2000.

Sibley was beloved by his students, Shaughnessy noted. During his 22 years of teaching, he served as a mentor to scores of students working on all aspects of modern and early modern Japanese literature and culture. "However removed a particular student's research focus from his own interests," said his longtime colleague Norma Field, the Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor of Japanese Studies, "Sibley gave unstintingly of his time to read texts one-on-one with them and insisted, with frequent illustration by example, that even passages quoted casually in dissertations be translated with precision and grace."

A former Sibley student, Noriko Aso, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said, "Bill was extraordinary, kind and generous."

Miho Matsugu, a 2005 Ph.D. and presently assistant professor of Japanese at DePaul University, said, "I just taught his translation this week for my literature class at DePaul and told my students how wonderful it was to take Bill's seminar when I was a graduate student."

At the time of his death, Sibley was midway through the translation of a trilogy by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), arguably Japan's most important modern writer. Although these volumes had been previously translated, Sibley, through sustained engagement with Soseki's writing, had come to the conclusion that the language the writer was in the midst of crafting called for new translations. In an Afterword to Text and City: Essays on Japanese Modernity by Maeda Ai, to which Sibley also contributed a translation, he observed of Maeda's premature death that it gave "the wrenching feeling that came from a recognition that truly inimitable work-in-progress had been abruptly arrested." Field said that "given the energy Sibley brought to this new project, combined with his experience, verbal gifts, and sheer erudition, prompt us to apply the same words to his death."

Sibley was a member of the Association for Asian Studies and its Committee for Comparative Literature in East Asia.

Sibley is survived by his sister, Jill S. Bixler, of Washington, D.C. ; and her two sons Joshua E. Bixler, and Matthew Bixler.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m., Saturday, June 6, at St. Paul the Redeemer, 4945 S. Dorchester Ave. Chicago. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Northwestern Memorial Foundation, Lung Cancer Research, 676 N. St. Clair, Suite 2050, Chicago, Ill. 60611.