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Translating “The Tale of Genji”, the World’s First Novel

By Juliet Grames

In her second blog post for our issue of Japanese literature, Juliet Grames explores the roots of contemporary writing by discussing the now 1,000-year-old Tale of Genji. —Editors

You may have heard the exciting news: it's the 1000th-anniversary of The Tale of Genji, the Japanese epic commonly thought of as the world's first novel. It's the story of the Emperor's young bastard son, who is given the "commoner" last name Morimoto ("Genji," improbably for an English speaker, means "bearer of the Morimoto name") so he can be of service to the court. Young Genji, a true romantic, is of service in many ways—for example, he fathers the next crown prince with the wife of his own father, the Emperor. Along the road of his courtly adventures, there are many romances and much poetry.

My first copy of Genji was a graduation gift from my high school Japanese teacher, Mrs. Buck. She wisely chose the abridged version lest I be daunted (baby steps!), and wrote a nice note in the cover, including the ambitious I hope you enjoy this book. Perhaps someday you will also read it in Japanese. Sadly for Mrs. Buck, who deserves a better legacy (and has it elsewhere), my Japanese never got good enough for me to tackle the two thousand-odd pages of classical Japanese prose (roughly the equivalent of Middle English in its correspondence to the modern language). But luckily for me, lots of people have put lots of time into coming up with entertaining and faithful translations so I don't have to.

Genji is a meandering saga of courtly love, and it's clear just from its composition that the author's chief focus was beautiful language, not plot arc. The author's and characters' preoccupation is with beautiful things—exemplifying the Heian philosophy that beauty is goodness—so it goes without saying that, were the author alive today, she would have hoped for an artistic translation.

Because of its length, unchronological composition, age in which it was written, and its scope, Genji Monogatari is one of those works of literature that (like the Iliad) will suffer thoughtful translations indefinitely. In the hundred-year history of Genji-to-English translation, there have been several warring approaches to an unapproachable task.

I'll blithely skip over the poor Japanese scholars who worked long, hard hours to offer some piece of their culture to English speakers (but, if you're interested, you can read more about Suematsu Kencho). The first widely read full-scale translation was done by Arthur Waley, an English "Orientalist" (he translated a good deal of Chinese as well as Japanese literature). Between 1921 and 1933, Waley published a (nearly) complete translation of the mammoth medieval masterpiece. His approach might be called a liberal one: he rendered the entire work into smooth-flowing English prose, and simply rearranged things (words, events, ideas) to make them sound as much as possible like an English-language novel. Purists have been upset about this for decades, and the edition has all but gone out of print, but Waley's translation is certainly artistic in its own way, and succeeded in offering English-language readers their first comprehensive exposure to this world classic. Jorge Borges, for one, described Waley's translation as "written with an almost miraculous naturalness."

The second major translation was published by Edward Seidensticker, an American scholar and one of the leading Japanese-to-English translators in history. He cornered the market when the getting was good, just as people were becoming aware of and interested in Japanese literature but most of the Japanese "great books" were yet to be translated. As a result, Seidensticker offered the (in my opinion, gorgeous) still-favored translations of famous works by Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and others as well as his rendition of Genji. His approach to Genji was much more faithful to the original text.

No one took on the huge project of translation again (or at least didn't make it as far as publication) until Royall Tyler's very thorough new treatment, which was published in 2001. Like Seidensticker's, Tyler's translation is tirelessly faithful to the original Japanese text.

Perhaps the biggest "problem" in the translation of Genji is the poetry that occurs throughout. In the fifty chapters there are almost eight hundred poems—seven hundred and ninety-five, to be precise—and this does not include the poems that are obliquely referenced or partially quoted.

The poetry in Genji is used almost entirely as communications between characters, either spoken or written—often romantic, but not always. Characters enclose carefully-crafted poems in letters to each other, or resort to couplets in the middle of dialogue when a particularly poetic mood strikes them. Poems are especially appropriate in response to other poems, and some chapters feature strings of back-and-forth tanka where each exchanged poem plays upon the previous. There are also often references, direct or oblique, to well-known Chinese poems (the author was a Chinese scholar herself).

So any attempt to translate Genji requires a system of treating the poetry. Waley simply eliminated most of the poetry, incorporating the couplets into prose dialogue between characters. Seidensticker's approach was fairly straightforward, a rather elegant transliteration. Here's an example I found particularly lovely:

Late at night we enjoy the misty moon.

There is nothing misty about the bond between us. (Seidensticker 137)

Tyler, meanwhile, took a very different approach. As he explains in his introduction, Japanese poetry has no rhyme (Japanese only has five sounds—rhymes would be pretty boring) or meter. Instead, the only structural rule that applies is the syllable count in each line, generally a tanka 5-7-5-7-7 structure. As Tyler points out in his introduction (cf xxiv), much of what is intensely clever about Japanese poetry relies on intricate wordplay, all but impossible to translate (heck, I'll come out and say it—it's impossible to translate). So instead, Tyler chose to emphasize the importance of the syllabic structure. He took the content of original Japanese poem and rendered it into the same syllabic format it would have had in Japanese. In other words, he rewrote each poem in two lines, the first of which contains 17 syllables (or 5-7-5), and the second 14 (7-7). Here's the same poem you read above, in Tyler's syllabic treatment:

"That you know so well the beauty of the deep night leads me to assume

you have with the setting moon nothing like a casual bond." (Tyler 156)

Tyler's rationale for this more complex treatment is that the emphasis on syllabary reflects a concern of the Japanese author and her Japanese-language readers.

My personal preference is for Seidensticker's sparer, more content-focused poetry (instead of form-focused poetry). But of course this is a matter of preference, and some reviewers found Tyler's translation the most faithful to the original Japanese.

In either case, Tyler's translation project draws attention to how very difficult and vague the project of translation from Japanese (perhaps especially classical Japanese) to English is. In a language of vague relationships between words and implied verbs, it is hard to decide (as you can see in the above example) whether a poem is about "we" or "you," whether the subject is "knowing" or "enjoying."

Here's one more companion pair of translated poems for you:

"While Autumn on bitter winds set in to blow, and I languished still,

your silence, and nothing else, pervaded day after day." (Tyler 210)

"Anxious, restless days. A gust of wind,

And yet another, bringing no word from you." (Seidensticker 215)

Published May 27, 2009   Copyright 2009 Juliet Grames

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