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The Book and the Boy

By (July 1, 2015) One Comment

The Tale of GenjiWashburn Genji
By Murakami Shikibu
translated from the Japanese by Dennis Washburn
WW Norton, 2015

“Translating is a humbling task because it heightens our awareness of the parochial nature of particular languages, and thus unavoidably raises issues of faithfulness, originality, and influence,” Dennis Washburn wrote in his 2010 Foreword to a reprint of the Tale of Genji translation produced by Arthur Waley between 1921 and 1933. “A translation is a kind of virtual palimpsest, a writing over of one language by another that acts as a mediating barrier to the very text it makes intelligible.” Washburn situates Waley’s translation in the same historical era that produced the Constance Garnett Tolstoy translations and C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s version of A la recherche du temps perdu, and although he defends the Waley work’s many strengths, he rightly says of The Tale of Genji that “Like other classics of world literature, it possesses a depth and complexity capable of sustaining multiple interpretations.”

Now Washburn makes an interpretation of his own: his enormous unabridged translation of The Tale of Genji is published by W.W. Norton in an immense $50 cinder block of a hardcover edition, and it joins the ranks of major Genji translations that began with Waley, continued in 1976 with a version by Edward Seidensticker, and went on with Royall Tyler’s version in 2002. Unlike all its predecessors, Washburn’s Genji isn’t originally issued in multiple volumes – it’s one huge 1400-page thing, with footnotes instead of end notes, and with a 30-page Introduction that’s both a marvel of concision and utterly fascinating in its own right.

It’s from the Introduction, for instance, that we learn about the demure 10th-century Heian aristocratic lady who wrote under the pen name of Murasaki Shikibu and who may have begun her great work, Genji monogatari, while deep in grief:

Tradition has it that Murasaki began writing Genji monogatari soon after her husband’s death, supposedly as a kind of nagusame, or comfort, to fill her lonely days with the literary pursuits that obviously meant so much to her personally. How the earliest chapters circulated and exactly who was reading them at this time is not clear.

waleyintrowashburnBut people were reading them, and talking about them, and writing about them, and as Washburn’s Introduction makes clear, that process only accelerated as the centuries passed. Genji has been hailed as the first novel, hailed as the greatest novel, and held up as evidence both that its author was divine and that its author was damned. “The story,” Washburn writes, “has been read as a moral and religious guide, as a source for historical data on court society, as a feminist text and post-feminist text, as a marker of cultural literacy and national identity.” The fact that such a long and abstruse work has been translated into English so many times speaks eloquently of that work’s essential appeal across time and cultural divides.

At the heart of that appeal is surely Genji himself, the story’s beautiful, feckless, slightly bumptious main character, the refined and endlessly priapic son of the Japanese emperor. Court machinations bar him from the actual exercise of his royal prerogatives – he goes about life technically a commoner in rank – but he’s the brother, lover, and father of emperors and empresses, and his occasional egalitarian gestures don’t fool any of Murasaki Shikibu’s many dozens of characters, and they don’t fool our author either, who dotes on her hero despite the many foibles with which she’s invested him. This is made clear enough in the early chapter Arthur Waley calls “The Broom-Tree,” although Waley is courtly and discreet about it:

Genji the Shining One … He knew that the bearer of such a name could not escape much scrutiny and jealous censure and that his lightest dallyings would be proclaimed to posterity. Fearing then lest he should appear to after ages as a mere good-for-nothing and trifler, and knowing that (so accursed is the blabbing of gossips’ tongues) his most secret acts might come to light, he was obliged always to act with great prudence and to preserve at least the outward appearance of respectability.

Washburn gives the same passage far more directly, in a chapter he titles “Broom Cypress”:

The Radiant Prince – a splendid, if somewhat bombastic, title. In fact, his failings were so numerous that such a lofty sobriquet was perhaps misleading. He engaged in all sorts of flings and dalliances, but he sought to keep the secret out of fear that he would become fodder for gossips who delighted in circulating rumors about him and end up leaving to later generations a reputation as a careless, frivolous man. Genji was keen to avoid the censure of the court, and thus constrained, went about feigning serious and earnest demeanor for a time, abstaining from all elegantly seductive or charming affairs.

seidenstickerIn Waley’s version, the rumors of all those “dallyings” might very well be exaggerated by the wagging of gossips’ tongues; true, his “most secret acts” should be kept from public knowledge, but he’s also got to worry about any other, perhaps spurious, stories “jealous censure” might set in motion. Washburn’s version is written in the cold light of Twitter and TMZ; we no longer make excuses for our Radiant Princes, and they have more to worry about precisely because they have nowhere to hide anymore.

That amplitude of detail is everywhere in Washburn’s Genji, and this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Murasaki Shikibu is a veritable poet of the precisely-chosen detail, extending, famously, to her story’s many moments of simply pausing and appreciating the natural world. In Genji’s twenty-third chapter, for instance, all the complicated action of the plot is put on hold for just such a moment. Seidensticker calls the chapter “The First Warbler” and paints the picture in his typically pure, precise brush-strokes:

New Year’s Day was cloudless. There is joy inside the humblest of hedges as the grass begins to come green among patches of snow and there is a mist of green on the trees while the mists in the air tell of the advent of spring. There was joy in the jeweled precincts of Genji’s Rokujo mansion, where every detail of the gardens was a pleasure and the ladies’ apartments were perfection.

“The First Warbler” becomes “First Song of Spring” in Washburn’s translation, and he renders the whole thing a bit more elaborately:

The sky dawned perfectly clear on New Year’s morning. Even the hedgerows of humblest peasant grasses were beginning to take on a fresh hue of green amidst the remaining patches of snow, and new buds were forming a haze of color in the mist-shrouded trees, looking as if they were impatient to bloom. The sight of such things naturally sets people’s hearts at ease, and so how much more wonderful must the spring have looked at the jewel-like estate of Rokujo, with the many splendid delights offered up by its gardens and the dazzling polish of its residences all decked out for the season. No words could possibly do justice to the scene.

Note that the tone of description in Washburn is that of an outsider: Seidensticker tells us that the precincts of Genji’s mansion glistened with perfection; Washburn’s narrator tells us first how perfect Genji’s palace must have looked – a guess, but a sure one – and then warns us that words couldn’t do the sight justice even if we were allowed to see it directly. Even readers without a word of Japanese (the majority of Washburn’s readers, one suspects) will sense that the second, more deferential rendering is probably the more accurate one, however strange such deference might feel to them.

The sprawling world Murasaki Shikibu portrays maintains that strangeness to Western expectations throughout (and perhaps Eastern expectations too – it’s hard to imagine Japanese readers in 2015 encountering Genji for the first time would make much more sense out of it than their counterparts in Ohio), and this is perhaps the foremost hurdle any translator must clear. Such a strange and highly particularized world invites glossing in a way that less elaborate created realities do not. The Tale of Genji is in this way far more akin to The Divine Comedy than the Iliad, and it’s by their success in dealing with such elaboration that translators can rise or fall.

Take a witty, blink-quick moment from later in the book, Chapter 33, Fuji No Uraba, which Royall Tyler renders as “New Wisteria Leaves”; we get the set-up to the moment (involving Genji’s grown-up and almost equally passionate son and a former lover), followed by the kind of pointed, dashed-off exchange at which Murasaki Shikibu’s characters all excel:

The Palace Guards’ envoy was the Secretary Captain. These gentlemen had gathered first at His Excellency’s residence and then come from there to wait upon His Grace. Another envoy was the Fujiwara Dame of Staff. Highly regarded, she enjoyed such happy esteem that gifts in great numbers poured in to her from everywhere, including His Majesty, the Heir Apparent, and Rokujo itself. The Consultant Captain even sent her a congratulatory messages as she set out. In private they had shared their intimacy, and the way he had settled down to such great advantage had upset her. He had written,

“What is it they call the leaf we all sport today? There it is, I see,
yet such ages have gone by, I no longer know its name.”

He had not let the moment slip past him, no, and for one reason or another she managed even in the confusion of boarding her carriage to reply,

“As to that green leaf you sport merrily enough, ignorant or not,
surely he who won laurel could manage to know its name!”

It takes a Doctor, I suppose.” It was a slight reply, but it stung him.

unabridgedroyalltylerTyler appends two notes to the moment. He identifies the Dame of the Staff as, “The daughter of Koremitsu, Genji’s old confidant. The organs of government that sent a formal representative to the Kamo Festival included the Office of Staff.” And he glosses the first poem as “We have not been together for so long that I have even forgotten what this leaf is called.” The leaf is aoi, “heart-to-heart.”

In Washburn, Fuji No Uraba is “Shoots of Wisteria Leaves,” and the scene goes like this:

Kashiwagi was serving this day as representative for the Palace Guard. He and the other officials and representatives had gathered at the Palace Minister’s villa and then come straight from there to the viewing stand. The daughter of Koremitsu, who had gone into service at the palace as the Fujiwara Assistant Handmaid after performing as a maiden of the Gosechi dance, had been chosen to represent the Handmaid’s office. She was held in such high regard that Emperor Reizei, the Crown Prince, and the Chancellor bestowed their gracious favor, lavishing so many fine presents on her that she had no place to put them all. Genji’s son also sent her a congratulatory message – she had, after all, once been his lover, and because they had shared a deep, intimate affection for one another, the news that he had married a lady of highly distinguished lineage caused her great distress. His letter included this poem:

What are they, those leaves that adorn our caps today
I see them here but I cannot recall their name
Having passed so many days without meeting you

“How sad it is.” He had simply not been able to let the opportunity pass without sending her the poem, but how did she feel about it?

Amidst all the confusion and bustle as she was preparing to board her carriage, she somehow managed a reply:

You ask me if I recall the name of those leaves
That adorn your cap, but you’re the one who should know
You who won leaves of katsura for your studies

“Since I’m not a Doctor of Letters …” It was a trifling response, but he found it nettlesome that she should have bested him.

To which Washburn appends the note:

The name of the heart-shaped leaf he refers to is aoi. Because of the orthography, the name pays on two meanings: aoi (“wild ginger”) and aohi (“the day we meet”). Katsura leaves, which as the reply poem notes were given to scholars to signify achievement, were also used to adorn caps for this festival. Thus the reply by Koremitsu’s daughter cleverly rebuffs Genji’s son by exposing his pretense of not knowing the name of the plant.

It can be instantly seen that Washburn’s rendition is the better of the two, however elegant and poetic a job Tyler does. One reason is literally a matter of name-calling: Tyler adheres to Murasaki Shikibu’s own penchant for circuitous identification of her characters – sometimes by their court function, other times by their social position or birthplace, but almost never by their actual name. This is accurate translating, but Washburn mostly dispenses with it in favor of telling readers who’s doing what to whom. What it lacks in elegance, it more than makes up in clarity, without too egregiously offending the refined spirit of our author. Also “Doctor of Letters” works where “Doctor” doesn’t. Also Washburn’s note works better, shedding light on what’s actually happening in the scene, rather than merely on isolated details.

This is the Washburn Tale of Genji from start to finish: immensely scholarly but also, somehow, uncannily readable, helpful without being pedantic, clarifying without ever simplifying. Gone are the Edwardian paraphrases of Arthur Waley; gone too is the somewhat flat-footed gait of the Edward Seidensticker; and the occasionally forbidding purity of the Royall Tyler is softened and colored in around the edges. It’s an amazingly cheering performance, a Genji to last a century. And if W.W. Norton should see fit to create an electronic version, your poor terrified metacarpals will scarcely notice the pages flying by.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.