From the bomb to Fukushima, in translation

Cindy Lange-Kubick 
Posted: Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Lincoln Journal Star

The story is on the second page of the book.

"On the third day, most of the dead and wounded students had been taken care of, and I went home in the dusk. All was burned ashes. I immediately spotted a black lump at the site where the kitchen had been. It was the charred remains of my wife's pelvis and vertebrae. Nearby was the rosary with a cross attached to it..."

The author of the essay was a Japanese schoolteacher from Nagasaki. The translator of his words, a University of Nebraska graduate from Japan.

Two very different nuclear disasters are bookends in Nobuko Tsukui's life: The bombs that dropped in August when she was a girl in Tokyo.

And the meltdown on the coast of her country when she finally was home again, retired from a life of letters.

In the years between Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, and March 11, 2011, Nobuko came to Lincoln to study at the University of Nebraska and taught in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C., filling days -- and then decades -- with literature and translation and giving life to the stories of the hibakusha. She explains that word Wednesday, in the lobby of Embassy Suites, a small, animated woman who talks with her hands and smiles with her eyes.

Hibakusha: the survivors of an atomic bomb.

Like the man who wrote "A Rosary."

"I picked up my wife's remains and put them in a burned bucket. They were still faintly warm ..."

Nobuko filled two books with their stories, translated from Japanese, the last one self-published in April 2010.

Only 100 copies in all, she says.

But none at all without the help of Paul Olson.

"I say without my parents, I would not have been born. Without Paul Olson, who I am now would not have existed."

The retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln English professor encouraged her to keep trying after publishers rejected the book, she says.

And when she visited last summer, he helped sell 25 or 30 of those 100 copies.

Nobuko first came to Lincoln by chance.

"Ever since I was a junior-high student, I felt I would like to get out of Japan for once in my life. I felt I would suffocate if I stayed."

She applied at dozens of universities and ended up here in September 1961, staying for six years before leaving with a Ph.D. in English and a lifelong friend in Olson. She spent 20 years at George Mason University teaching in the English department. It was there she found inspiration for her books.

It was 1980. A fellow professor began putting together an interdisciplinary class: Nuclear War.

Nobuko volunteered to help. She was granted a 90-minute lecture.

And a year to prepare. She wrote to her brother, a Japanese literature teacher: Find me anything and everything you know.

She began gathering the stories -- novels, poetry, documentary accounts.

"They dealt with the human condition, human life, the meaning of life."

They moved her.

"The work I studied spoke to the soul like no other literature."

She gave her lecture. And she kept translating. Eventually, she returned to Japan and taught there until retiring two years ago.

Her last book is titled "The Atomic Bomb Literature of Japan: An Introduction and Translation."

She learned four things. She lists them, counting on her fingers.

One: "The authors wrote out of a sense of mission. They felt: 'This has to be told.'"

Two: "Not again another human being should have this experience."

Three: "We must stop destroying the human race by another nuclear war."

Four: "We must work to bring peace on earth."

She will talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki Saturday at Holmes Lake during the annual Nebraskans for Peace Lantern Float. This year is the 66th anniversary of Hiroshima, where more than 100,000 died.

She'll talk about something she calls "The Triple Disaster" too -- the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, a "colossal peacetime hazard."

"I left Japan before nuclear power plants were being built," the translator explains. "I'm now trying to do what I should have been doing for 50 years."

It's not difficult to understand her newest mission, after all those hours turning pages on stories of such horror.

"I held the bucket to my chest and went to the graveyard. Everybody in our neighborhood had died. The black bones which looked all alike were scattered over the ashes on which the evening sun shone."

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