A STRING OF FLOWERS, UNTIED: Love Poems from The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Jane Reichhold and Hatsue Kawamura. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2003, 238 pp., $18.95 (paper).

Threaded throughout the 1000-page length of the “Genji Monogatari” (The Tale of Genji) are some 800 poems. They not only illustrate the aristocratic folkways of the people who back then were always dropping poems off on each other, but also, say the translators of this new edition of just the poetry, they offer the perceptions and feelings of the writer and his or her recipient.

Jane Reichhold and Hatsue Kawamura find these “the true gems of the work,” but they usually haven’t been treated as such, at least not by foreign scholars. Arthur Waley in his translation of “The Tale of Genji” turns them into dialogue, Edward Seidensticker keeps their entity but makes them couplets, Helen Craig McCullough fashions five-line English sentences. Only Royall Tyler gives them complete. The present translators seek to redress this. They feel that not only is the best of the work to be found in these poems but it is possible to read the poems instead of the book.

The entire “Genji” is given in paraphrase. Only the poems are given complete. These are translated in proper Japanese format and an effort has been made, the translators tell us, to create Japanese poems in English rather than couplets and quatrains and the like.

Their translation is based on Akiko Yosano’s modern Japanese translation and even includes the poems that Yosano, herself a major poet, penned to introduce each of the books of the “Genji.” All of this is printed in a four-panel format that fits the contents well.

The two outside panels are given over to the interesting and at times vital notes. The two inside panels hold the precis of the novel and poems themselves, in romaji and in English. It makes for a very handsome double page. Stone Bridge Press is particularly good at this creative formatting.

Whether or not the resulting volume approximates the original or even substitutes for it, it does give an indication of the importance of the poetry to the author’s intentions. Whether it is all that important to the reader’s needs is perhaps more doubtful.

I once asked an eminent translator of the “Genji” why he had shortened the poetry, and he answered that it was because the poems were not very good. Indeed, some of the major translated collections, including that of Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, contain nothing from the “Genji.”

For example, here is the Seidensticker version of the first of the poems. At the sound of the wind, bringing dew to Miyagi Plain, I think of the tender hagi upon the moor. And there is a note that hagi is often called bush clover.

Here is the Reichhold and Kawamura version of the same poem. The sound of the wind brings the dew to the fields of Miyagino to the tiny bush clover I do send my thoughts. And there is a note indicating that bush clover is hagi in Japanese.

One could argue that the latter is preferable because we are translating the poetry not editing it, but whether the effect is necessary or not is something for the reader to decide.

The reader must also decide on a more important matter — whether an early editorial decision should be allowed to limit enjoyment of the poems. This came to my attention as I was reading the book and began to wonder why, in the midst of all these new modern translations, I was thinking so strongly of the now musty and old-fashioned Waley translation. This is because Reichhold and Kawamura have elected to translate all the names/titles into English.

The titles in the original Japanese text pose a problem. In a sense no one has a name. Waley just gave them names and Seidensticker used the inner logic of the work to do much the same. Tyler uses the titles alone but a difficulty remains in that these titles change as the bearer is throughout the book promoted.

Reichhold and Kawamura have decided that turning everything into English solves all problems. Thus Koremitsu becomes Sir Reflected Brilliance, Oborozukiyo becomes Princess of the Night of the Misty Moon, and Yugao becomes Lady Evening Faces. No wonder I was thinking of Waley. He does not, to be sure, go this far, but he — being a symbolist writer, translating a hundred years ago — used a vocabulary which is now quaint and twee, one used for fairy tales and other children’s entertainments. This, I feel, fails to communicate the mature sophistication of the “Genji,” but again the reader must decide.

Since Murasaki Shikibu’s great novel has already been turned into several movies, two TV series, a manga and, shortly, an animated feature, we might ask then, well, why not? If Charles and Mary Lamb could infantilize Shakespeare, why shouldn’t Reichhold and Kawamura popularize Murasaki?

They have untied the string of flowers, flapping a bit in the critical wind, and made them more accessible. One may now read the “Genji” without having read the “Genji” and one may follow the emotions of characters with names such as Lord Oak Tree — so much more reassuring than the somehow shifty Kashiwagi.

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