If you are planning to read what some consider the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, several translations can guide you through the fascinating world of the Heian Period. Let us examine major English translations of The Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji was written by a Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century. Both the original and the modern Japanese versions are available online. The website at the University of Virginia kindly provided an option to read the work in three parallel frames: original, modern Japanese, and romaji versions.
Suematsu, Kenchō. Genji Monogatari : The Most Celebrated of the Classical Japanese Romances. London: Trubner, 1882.
- First translation into English
- Considered poor quality
- Only few chapters were completed
Helen McCullough. Genji & Heike: Selections from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike. Stanford: Stanford University Press., 1994.
- Only selected chapters
- Only the first half of the book
Complete English Translations
Arthur Waley. The Tale of Genji. London: George Allen & Unwin. (1926-1933)
- Very free translation
- Omitted several chapters
- Great achievement of its time
- Very well received at the time of publication
Edward Seidensticker. The Tale of Genji. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (1976)
- Closer to original than Waley
- Some liberties were taken to improve readability
- Characters are identified by name instead of title as in the original
- Succinct yet naturally flowing narration
- Early editions of the book have many typos
Royall Tyler. The Tale of Genji. New York: Viking Press. (2001)
- Closest to the original than any previous translation
- Extensive notes and commentaries about poetical and cultural aspects
- Attempted to mimic the original style of Murasaki
- Used titles, just like the original, instead of names
- Text may be difficult to follow because titles change over time
- Poems are somewhat wordy
Arthur Waley: ”At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favored far beyond all the rest.”
Edward Seidensticker: ”In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.”
Royall Tyler: ”In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.”
Chapter Five: “Murasaki”
Genji visits a Buddhist monastery in the mountains
Arthur Waley: “Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall–audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.”
Edward Seidensticker: “Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.”
Royall Tyler: “Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep. ”
Source: Amazon Customer Review
Waley ran the poems right into the text, and Seidensticker set them off as couplets; neither strategy was entirely faithful to the original, though Seidensticker’s was perhaps more effective. Tyler’s solution is to present each as a single sentence broken into two lines, and he makes his task even more difficult by preserving the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern of waka.
Beneath a tree, a locust’s empty shell.
Sadly I muse upon the shell of a lady.
Underneath this tree, where the molting cicada shed her empty shell,
my longing still goes to her, for all I knew her to be.
Choose Your Guide
My favorite translation is by Edward Seidensticker due to its succinct approach, beautiful poems, and natural flow. However, I’ll be reading Royall Tyler’s version because it is close to the original and offers extensive notes about the history.
Janice P. Nimura summarized it very well: “Waley is the most entertaining, Seidensticker the most unobtrusive, and Tyler the most instructive.”
Sue mentioned that there is a new version by Dennis Washburn, a Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor in Asian Studies at Dartmouth College. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in Japanese language and literature.
“This new version by Dennis Washburn, a professor at Dartmouth, falls somewhere between Seidensticker’s reader-friendly translation and Tyler’s more stringently literal one, resulting in a fluid, elegant rendition.” (Washington Post)