Deadly Translation: The Politics of Hitoshi Igarashi’s Japanese Version of The Satanic Verses

Published on January 26, 2019

By Kali Faulwetter

Hitoshi Igarashi
10 June 1947 – 12 July 1991

"Scholars can't be worried about what will happen to them as a result of their work."
    -Hitoshi Igarashi, on translating The Satanic Verses.

A Japanese scholar of Arabic and Persian literature and history, Hitoshi Igarashi was the first professional Japanese translator of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses. Translating the novel in the wake of the fatwas issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Igarashi was in direct violation of the Iranian government. Khomeini’s fatwa specifically called for the death of Salman Rushdie, as well as anyone else involved in the publication and distribution of the novel’s content. Igarashi translated the novel anyway. No specific charges were brought against Igarashi, but he was nonetheless found tragically murdered in his University of Tsukuba office in July 1991.
     
  • The 1989 Iranian fatwas issued by leader Ayatollah Khomeini charged all individuals involved in the production, promotion, and distribution of Salman Rushdie’s fictional novel with "insulting the sacred beliefs of Muslims”. Hitoshi Igarashi was found guilty in the eyes of the fatwa as evidenced by his Japanese translation of The Satanic Verses. The novel has been banned in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia, South Africa, and Iran.

  • Mr. Igarashi was an associate professor of Comparative Islamic Culture at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. He was an avid writer of books on Islam, The Islamic Renaissance, as well as medicine and spirituality of the East. In addition to translating The Satanic Verses, he also translated Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine into Japanese.

  • Mr. Igarashi was never formally charged with a crime, nor was he given the opportunity to defend himself before being killed. However, due to the international debate sparked by the public issuing of the fatwa, he explained his decision to translate The Satanic Verses despite the danger. He defended the novelist Salman Rushdie by saying the novel’s message was in line with Islamic mystical Sufi thought, that Rushdie was not anti-Islamic, and even went so far as to say that Rushdie’s “passage to England, just like Passage to India by E. M. Foster, represented a literature of exile and could be judiciously compared to the Hejra by Muhammad, to begin with, or to the "Western Exile" in Kairouan by Suhrawardi”.

  • Studying in 1976 in Iran at the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, Igarashi stated in multiple interviews before his murder that he was not bothered by the threats he received as a result of the publication of the Japanese translation. Igarashi believed that the importance of Rushdie’s book lay not in its commentary on Islam but rather for its reflection of the British-Indian author's love-hate relationship with India.

It is inarguable that Hitoshi Igarashi was an avid supporter of Islamic art and culture. Choosing to translate The Satanic Verses despite the dangers was a brave expression in support of free speech and the love of art in any form. As of February 2016, $600,000 has been added to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, who remains alive and well in his home in New York City.

Hitoshi Igarashi in numbers:


Number of individuals who have been extrajudicially executed outside of Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
These murders are thought to have been carried out by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Italian translator Ettore Caprioli and Norwegian translator William Nygaard were also two victims of the fatwa as a result of their respective translations. On July 3rd, 1991, Caprioli was attacked in Milan, surviving the assassination attempt. Nygaard’s assassination attempt resulted in Norway recalling its ambassador to Iran.

Number of copies of The Satanic Verses sold in Japan, making the novel wildly successful in the localized Japanese.

The number of years Salman Rushdie went into hiding after the issuance of the fatwa. Ayatollah Khomeini, who said the book was blasphemous and anti-Islamic, died in June 1989, but the assassination order has been reaffirmed by the Iranian authorities.

For the New York Times story on Igarashi’s murder in 1991, click here.


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Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We are researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog. You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site - just contact kali@motaword.com.

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