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How to Choose English Translation of The Tale of Genji

November 15, 2008

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.

Original Text

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.

Incomplete Translations

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

First Sentence

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

Poetry

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.

Edward Seidensticker:

Beneath a tree, a locust’s empty shell.
Sadly I muse upon the shell of a lady.

Royall Tyler:

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.

Some reviews:

“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)

Sources

Book: Tale of Genji (Wiki)
Translators: Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker, Royall Tyler
The Tale of the Genji review by Janice P. Nimura (New York Times, 2001)

Related Posts:

Asakiyumemishi – Tale of Genji Anime
Tale of Genji Anime: Genji Monogatari Sen-nen-ki Genji

45 comments

  1. I heard that an older version of the Genji was discovered earlier this year. It would be nice to read one translated from that version, but I believe I will pick up a copy of the Tyler edition because it may be quite some time before any such thing is released. Then again, I already have a Seidensticker edition…


  2. Yes, some older versions of the manuscripts were found this year. As far as I know, they are not complete versions though – only chapters six and 32. It would be good to know how exactly they differ from other versions.

    Seidensticker and Tyler wrote good translations. One of the advantages of Tyler’s translation is the extensive notes and charts. However, there are some additional books that provide context for The Tale of Genji, so either one should be fine. I wouldn’t want to read Waley’s edition though because it sounds too saturated to me.


  3. http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200807220341.html


  4. Oh, it looks like Osawa Book is a full version of the novel. Thank you for mentioning it🙂


  5. This is an excellent guide. Thanks a million for that. I was planning to try Tyler’s, but after this, I’m torn between Waley’s and Seidensticker’s. I like the intensity of Waley’s, but that “VERY free translation” irk me. In any case, definitely not Tyler’s, no matter how close to original.


    • Thank you – I am glad you found it useful🙂

      If you like Waley’s translation, read it. The text might not be very close to the original, but what matters the most is your enjoyment from the reading🙂


  6. The titles are not confusing in the Tyler version because he provides * and footnotes to make sure that the reader is aware of who the person is when the titles have changed. Personally, I like Tyler’s poems a lot more, and I don’t really think you should have written this guide before you read the Tyler version.


    • Yes, Tyler’s translation does include footnotes, but, according to the feedback I read, some people did find the titles somewhat confusing to follow. Individual perception may vary of course.

      The information I provide in this article is mostly facts, including citations from different translations, with little personal preference.


  7. I’ve read both Seidensticker and Tyler’s versions. I like them both. Tyler’s method of shifting the titles and terms of address for characters is not confusing, as long as you read the introductory character list at the beginning of each chapter. It’s also worth slipping a bookmark into the start of each chapter – that way if you do get half way down a page and forget who the person is, you can easily flip back and forth the start of the chapter to recheck.

    You do get into the swing of it, though, and once you’re settled with it, Tyler’s translation is easy to get on with. His notes and the extra information at the back on characters, buildings, etc, are also very interesting and well worth reading.

    I think, over all, I prefer Tyler’s version because of all this extra information about how the Japanese text flowed and why he’s made translation decisions that he’s made. However, both versions are very good. I haven’t felt much inclination to read Waley’s version.


    • The bookmark does seem useful for Tyler’s translation🙂

      Indeed, Tyler’s notes can be educational🙂


  8. I have all 3 English tranlations, each has its own merits. Which I choose to read depends on the mood I am in.

    Go for all three and you will have a life time of interesting reading.


    • Yes, it would be best to taste each flavor if time permits🙂


  9. Wow… Thank you so much for this!

    Such dedication and passion for this tale.
    I was planning to get Tyler’s version, but after reading that last comment, reading all 3 does seem like a good idea if you’ve got the time, love and dedication for it (^_^)

    You sound like you’ve read a lot of greats!


    • You are welcome!🙂

      Have fun reading🙂


  10. I’m not sure why people are so enamoured of Seidensticker’s translation. I’ve read works by Mishima, Kawabata, and a bit of The Tale of Genji in English, all translated by Seidensticker, and they all read like …. Edward Seidensticker. If you read Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, the first three volumes, translated by different people, read like normally textured English. The tone and style change completely in the final volume, translated by Edward Seidensticker, and suddenly become harder to read because of Seidensticker’s preference for short, uncomplicated sentences. The sudden change in style has nothing to do with Mishima; it’s a result of Seidensticker’s signature style: short sentences delivered in a flat, emotionless voice. I once did a brief comparison of Seidensticker’s translation of Mishima with that of the other volumes in the tetralogy and discovered that Seidensticker, despite pretensions to fidelity, actually leaves out words and phrases in the original, flattening everything down in the process. I’m sure you could do a linguistic analyis of Seidensticker’s style and find that he makes less use of the varied syntactic resources of English than anyone else, including Hemingway. The sentences quite simply drone along without any attempt to bring the English alive. If you think that emotionless bland prose is a ‘faithful’ recreation of Murasaki Shikibu, then go ahead and buy Seidensticker’s version. If you want flowing prose and a bit of verve, read Waley, even if it is a bit more ‘gushing’ than Murasaki. Tyler I haven’t read, but he does look like a good compromise between Seidensticker and Waley.


    • Thank you for your detailed comment – I appreciate it🙂 It sounds like you find Seidensticker’s translations quite bland.


  11. How can i get a free copy of Arthur Waley’s version?


    • Unfortunately, I didn’t find a free version online after a brief search. Perhaps, you could try your local library. Even if it is not available in your library, most libraries nowadays can take a request and ship a book from another library.


  12. I’ve read both Seidensticker’s and Tyler’s translations and the first volume of Waley. Overall, I prefer Tyler and I think it would be the easist to follow for a first time reader.

    My impression of the Seidensticker text was that it was very dry and almost ‘silent’ in my head. After reading it (it was the one I bought first), I was on the look-out for a better translation that would pull me more into the story, so I treated myself to the Tyler when it came out and found it a much richer read (and much easier to follow – the sections at the start of the chapters are invaluable). Having said that, I do prefer Seidensticker’s poetry translations.

    I picked up the Waley second-hand after reading hte other two and its a very enjoyable read – I’m mostly curious to see how it differs from the others and am on the look-out for ther other volumes.


    • Thank you for your input, Rosie🙂

      It sounds like Tyler’s translation is quite good.


  13. Thank you for the excerpts. I came upon your site with some prejudice against Waley’s translation because I had heard it took many liberties, but after reading the samplers, I think I’ll read Waley first after all. There’s a good deal more life to his text compared to Seidensticker. I wonder whether you can supply his version of the poem?
    That said, I’ll probably read Tyler for the notes and accuracy later on. Between the two, one being a retelling of sorts and the other a faithful rendition, hope to be able to capture the spirit of this work.


    • When people intend to read several versions, there is less pressure, and it does not matter that much which one you’ll read first. The problems is when a person only has the time for one. Then it is more difficult to decide, and the optimal decision depends on your goal. If someone wanted to learn more about the period and all the intricacies of the culture, Tyler’s version would be best. But if someone wanted to enjoy a lively reading, Waley might be a better choice.


  14. I too am finding Seidensticker hard–going and, like Bathrobe above, feel irked at the dry, flat, emotionless, short sentences he uses. Of course, I have only reached chapter 5, so it may pick up as yet (I really hope it does!).

    According to Seidensticker’s introduction (I have the 1992 Everyman copy), Waley may have been free with his translation, but he simply added things that were implicit in the Japanese, but not present if translated into English. In Seidensticker’s own words:

    “Waley elaborates on the original most ingeniously, and says much that Murasaki Shikibu left unsaid. The flow of her narrative, in terms of thoughts and incidents, is rather sparse…”

    He then goes on to call Waley’s version a worthy endeavour. He then explains he tried to keep to Shikibu’s sequences of thought and incident ‘without elaboration’.

    He does, however, keep using the phrase ‘sad’ and ‘indescribably sad’, which does tally with what Bathrobe above about Seidensticker making ‘less use of the varied syntactic resources of English than anyone else’.


    • I see. Thank you for your input! It sounds like Waley made explicit what was left implicit and could have been understood without much elaboration by the contemporary readers. Perhaps, the difference with Tyler is the precision in the description of the context. Tyler’s work might be compared to what Nabokov did translating Eugene Onegin – it took two volumes of explanations!


  15. […] literature besides being said to be the  first novel ever written…but do read “how to choose English translation…” which picks Edward Seidensticker’s version as the most beautifully translated […]


  16. I originally came to this website to choose a translation of the Genji. I decided on the Tyler because it was said to have a great number of footnotes which I thought would be helpful in reading something so exotic for the first time. I’m very glad that I chose that translation. It really surprises me that no one has commented on the fact that the Tyler is the only translation of the complete extant Japanese text and that the Seidensticker and the Waley are just excerpts from the complete work. When I read the Seidensticker, I was very glad to have read the Tyler first because I was able to understand certain references which are made to chapters that Seidensticker has not included in his translation.

    I’d also like to recommend the book The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris which gives a lot of interesting information about the society and culture of the Heian period.


    • Thank you very much for this valuable input!🙂


  17. […] There is a later translation by Royall Tyler and if you’re unsure which one to start with there is an instructive discussion here. […]


  18. Thank you so much this comparison; it was very helpful.


    • Glad it helped you!🙂


  19. Thank you for this guide! It was exactly what I needed.


    • You are welcome! Glad it was helpful!


  20. This guide has been most helpful. I was looking for a translation into English that would be (1) complete, with no cuts (I hate abridgements !); (2) as close as can be to what the text says and means: and Tyler sounds like the one to go for. So, thanks.


    • You are welcome! Glad you found it useful!


  21. you should have just linked to the nimura review instead of paraphrasing it here ;P


    • I did link that review, but this post goes beyond it. Moreover, contributions by the visitors are very useful.


  22. I’m so glad I came across this guide! I was really torn as to whether I should get Tyler’s or Seidensticker’s. I think I will go for Tyler’s as I am very much comfortable with footnoting and annotations to get me through the text. It would make it simpler to digest it first time and grasp the story before maybe attempting Seidensticker’s.


    • Thank you! Glad it was helpful!


  23. Thank you for an excellent comparison of the three versions. I have the Waley in Modern Library edition but I’ll start with Tyler because it is complete, and then most likely Waley. I agree with the comment that this could be a lifetime of reading.


    • Glad to help! It seems many people prefer starting with Tyler.


  24. Hey, I was wondering if you would consider updating this post with the new translation? I’m curious how they compare. (For my part, I also prefer Tyler to Seidensticker, partly because of its accuracy and also because I do feel it reads better.)


    • It seems the new translation is somewhere between Tyler and Seidensticker. When I have time, I’ll find the same passage for the new translation.


  25. lol very foxy


  26. What do you think of the new translation by Dennis Washburn that was published in 2015 ?


    • I didn’t read it yet, thank you for mentioning it!



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