The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler. Viking, 2001, 1,174 pp., $60 (cloth)

In the February 2002 issue of the monthly journal Eureka, Fusae Kawazoe gives a rundown of translations of Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji" -- not only into foreign languages, but into modern Japanese as well. In doing so, the noted Genji scholar reminds us of the profound influence of Arthur Waley's English translation, which was published in six installments from 1925 to 1933.

Subsequent French, Swedish, Dutch, German, Italian and Hungarian translations of "Genji" were based on Waley's version. The process of secondhand translation is dubious at best, but in this case the results were remarkable. European readers came to rank the 11th-century Japanese author along with Miguel do Cervantes, Honore de Balzac, Jane Austen, Giovanni Boccaccio and Marcel Proust.

Not everyone was enamored of Waley's translation, however. It provoked the poet Akiko Yosano (1878-1942), the one translator of "Genji" into modern Japanese who counted at the time, into making a new Japanese translation of the novel. Yosano, who by then had made two "Genji" translations (one partial and published in 1912; the other complete but lost in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923), apparently felt betrayed by the extravagant praise Japanese intellectuals gave Waley's work. Hakucho Masamune, for one, announced that Waley "revived the original that appeared to be dead." For the modern Japanese reader, Murasaki's language is hard to decipher, said the foremost advocate of Naturalism of the day, whereas Waley's translation is easy to comprehend.