Obituary for Donald L. Philippi (aka Slava Ranko)
October 2, 1930--January 26, 1993
Donald L. Philippi died unexpectedly from complications of pneumonia at his home in San Francisco on January 26, 1993. He was sixty-two years old.
Don was born in Los Angeles on October 2, 1930. His father was an animator and art director for Walt Disney. From an early age both of his parents encouraged him to have an interest in other cultures, and he did. An extraordinarily gifted man, he led a rich, colorful, and complex life, during which he was known to different people in different roles. He once said that he was several persons in one body. He had at least four identities.
1. THE LINGUIST- SCHOLAR
Don was a linguist. He spoke fluent Japanese, and without visiting the Soviet Union developed a near-native command of Russian. He could read and write Slovak, and he could read and understand German, Spanish and French, as well as several other languages.
Don began learning Japanese on his own as a child in the late thirties in Los Angeles, and continued to do so during the war when it was regarded as an "enemy" language. After studying at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, he went to Japan in 1957 on a Fulbright scholarship, and wound up staying there until 1970. In Japan he studied at Kokugakuin University, a Shinto university in Tokyo, and on his own. He became an expert, not only in classical Japanese, but in the Ainu language (the nearly extinct language of the indigenous people of Japan). He also studied the Altaic languages of Siberia, such as Turkic.
Don was no ordinary linguist. He had an abiding interest in what he called the "archaic"-- the pre-civilized, pre-agricultural state of being-- and used his language skills to explore it. He became an expert in Ainu and other archaic cultures.
2. THE POLITICAL ACTIVIST
Around 1967, Don was caught up in the social convulsions of the era. He became involved with the radical student movement in Japan, and was loosely affiliated with the Revolutionary Marxist group (Kakumaru), headed by Kan'ichi Kuroda. As an observer of the movement, he attempted to write its history. As a participant, he was arrested several times and spent several weeks in jail, where, he said, "I met many interesting people and was extremely popular among the inmates." He returned from Japan in 1971 to the Bay Area, thoroughly disillusioned with politics. As he once said, "if any of those sects had succeeded in taking power, it would have caused an incalculable tragedy..... the people I respected in those days were madmen, and I was a bit crazy myself."
3. THE MUSICIAN
Before leaving Los Angeles in 1957 Don studied shamisen and chikuzen biwa (traditional Japanese stringed instruments). In Japan he became expert at them. He studied under the famed biwa performer Kyokurei Tanaka.
In the late seventies, after moving to San Francisco, Don combined biwa and synthesizer music and began performing in the local music scene under the name of Slava Ranko. In 1981 he issued a record album titled Arctic Hysteria. On the liner notes, he describes his music as "something straight out of the archaic..... simple, chaotic, anarchic and menacing.... This is what people of today have lost and need most-- the ability to experience permanent bodily and mental ecstasy, to be a receiving station for messages howling by on the ether from other worlds and nonhuman entities, those peculiar short-wave messages which come in static-free in the secret pleasure center in the brain."
As Slava Ranko, Don's album and music influenced the emerging punk rock and new wave scene in San Francisco. As the notes also state, "Since 1977, Slava has been a behind-the-scenes visionary in San Francisco's avant garde music underground, assisting such bands as Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Seizure and Voice Farm."
4. THE TRANSLATOR
Don is best known as a literary translator. During his life he published over four books of translations of ancient Japanese and Ainu texts. His translations of the Norito (ancient Japanese ritual prayers), the Kojiki [Record of Ancient Matters], and a collection of Ainu poems titled Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu, are widely regarded as classics.
Don also had a career as a technical translator, and after 1961 largely supported himself doing technical translations. In 1983, he single-handedly began a crusade to increase the awareness of the importance of translating Japanese technical documents. With a newsletter titled Technical Japanese Translation, he inspired what became a movement among American translators, uniting them and giving them a cohesive voice, as well as a sense of pride. In 1991 he played a central role in organizing the Second International Japanese-English Translation Conference. At the conference, his fellow translators presented him with a special award, in recognition of his efforts on their behalf.
In his more flamboyant moments, Don liked to claim that translating technical documents gave him a "translator's high"-- that if he had a fast computer, and some post-modern archaic music by heavy metal groups such as Motorhead to listen to, he could achieve a trance-like state. In reality, however, his true joy in translating technical documents probably came from the accomplishment of a more modest goal. As he once said, "...by imposing a tiny bit of order in a communication you are translating, you are carving out a little bit of order in the universe. You will never succeed. Everything will fail and come to an end finally. But you have a chance to carve a little bit of order and maybe even beauty out of the raw materials that surround you everywhere, and I think there is no greater meaning in life."
Don is not known to have any surviving family members, but in the vast community of his friends, and in the even vaster community of the mind, he has left behind an extraordinary legacy. He is dearly missed.
By Frederik L. Schodt. Winter, 1993.