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Between Japanese and Chinese, award-winning ASU professor highlights cultural intersection


Will Hedberg

Professor Will Hedberg has always been captivated by Asian languages, mastering forms of both Chinese and Japanese.

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April 26, 2017

Studying the culture of any country can occupy someone’s interest for years. At Arizona State University's School of International Letters and Cultures, award-winning Professor Will Hedberg remains captivated by two.

“My focus is the literature and culture of early-modern Japan,” Hedberg explained, “But I also have a background in Chinese studies, so my primary focus is the Japanese translation of Chinese language fiction and drama.”

That may sound like a lot, but Hedberg identifies a lot of overlap between the two languages and enjoys exploring cultural interpretation. He focuses on the period between 1600 and 1900 when more texts and ideas were flowing from China to Japan.

“It leads to interesting new ways of thinking about language, of thinking about translation, thinking about international relations,” Hedberg said.

Hedberg wanted to studied Chinese since he was in high school and received his bachelor’s degree in the language. He became interested in Japanese later on and was immediately fascinated by the connections between the languages.

He credits his initial interest in Chinese to his grandmother, who taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico, with a special focus on Chinese philosophy. Hedberg still has some of her books in his office.

He is now fluent in Chinese and Japanese, as well as the classical versions of both languages, as “they’ve changed a lot of 2000 years.” He can even read Chinese written in Japanese.

“I got accepted to the east Asia program at Harvard where I was very lucky in my first year to not only have a very supportive advisor on the Chinese side but also to meet faculty who very much encouraged my interest in Japanese studies as well,” Hedberg said. “ I’ve done research in Japan, Taiwan, spent time studying, taking classes, researching.”

At the School of International Letters and Cultures, although he is part of the Japanese department, Hedberg has found an environment that favors collaboration across disciplines. This year, his research earned support from the Institute for Advanced Study, a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies and support from the Social Science Research Council.

“Looking down the road, there’s a lot of interest in transborder studies here at ASU, which I think ties into my own research,” Hedberg said. “I’m looking at the flow of texts and ideas across geographic borders, cultural borders, linguistic borders.”

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