ORIENTING ARTHUR WALEY: Japonism, Orientalism, and the Creation of Japanese Literature in English, by John Walter de Gruchy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003, 210 pp., $34.00 (cloth).

Arthur Waley’s translations from Chinese and Japanese “should be read as contributions to English literature.” After all, his version of “The Tale of Genji” presents itself as “a modern English novel.” In fact, the translator “saw himself more as a creative writer of literature than as a scholar.” And, indeed, writes John Walter de Gruchy, author of this interesting study of Waley’s work, “I shall argue that translation is as much an act of creation as original writing.”

Thus a translation is to be judged, not for its fidelity (and indeed there is here no comparison made between the original Japanese and Waley’s English) but for its “style.” This, says social critic Edward Said — much quoted in this study — is what to look for in a translation and “not the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original.”

De Gruchy is on Waley’s side in that the translator himself saw his translations of ancient texts as modern (and even modernist) literature. The author argues that “Waley’s ‘Genji’ ” is an English novel in its own right that needs to be located in its proper context: not 11th century Japan but Britain during the time it was translated, the period between the wars.

Since Waley was, to an extent, re-imagining Murasaki Shikibi’s novel, he could, to an equal extent, edit it. He left out an entire chapter (No. 38, “Suzumushi”) because he found it to “protract uselessly a part of the book that already tends to drag.” Assumptions such as these led scholar Marian Ury to call Murasaki’s novel “Waley’s book,” and to find his version “an intriguing hybrid.”

Waley himself, speaking of his translations, said that one had to “develop the habit of hearing voices talk.” De Gruchy maintains that in Waley’s “Genji” we sense that Murasaki is there with him, “as a kind of ghostly presence whispering in his ear”; speaking, doubtless, in late Edwardian prose, the florid richness of which attracts readers even now. Or doesn’t: Lytton Strachey described the Waley “Genji” as “very beautiful in bits — country wine, made by a lady of quality — cowslip brandy.”

A close idea of what Waley did with “Genji” is offered by comparing it to other translations — not the first translation (Suematsu Kenjo’s, which omitted about two-thirds of the original), but those that came later: Edward Seidensticker’s, Royall Tyler’s and eventually a new one by Dennis Washburn (at present being completed).

De Gruchy compares the translations with interesting results. Waley and Tyler use longer sentences — as Murasaki did. But Murasaki’s interspersed poetry, on the other hand, is included in complete stanza form only by Tyler. Waley collapses it into prose (in line with the many changes he makes to the original), and Seidensticker treats the poems as couplets.

The tone (and sometimes content) of each translation is fittingly different. Waley, for example, writes of “the clink of silver flower-trays as [the priests] scattered chrysanthemum and maple leaves of many hues.” Seidensticker renders this passage as: “a clattering as the priests put new flowers before the image,” and Tyler writes “meanwhile the monks clattered about offering holy water beneath a lingering moon.”

De Gruchy makes another interesting contrast when he compares Waley’s prose with that of Virginia Woolf and finds them so close that he wonders who inspired who. He does not, however, detect the ghostly presence of Jane Austen whispering into Seidensticker’s ear. And as for Waley’s work, only De Gruchy heard the sibilance of Murasaki. I hear the accents of Roland Firbank (an Edwardian writer Waley much admired) and, in some of the passages, the ripe diction of Oscar Wilde.

And Waley did all of this in the library of the British Museum. He never visited Asia. What he did do was to re-imagine his texts in his own time and, in a way, in his own form. Here De Gruchy is at his most interesting, discovering reasons for the Waley-style in the translator’s social awkwardness, the fact that he was Jewish, that he had “homosexual tendencies” and was somewhat given to cross-writing (making little girls into little boys, for example) and his adulatory admiration of Prince Genji himself.

Whether his translation of Murasaki’s novel is a “true” one or not (Ury said “we have not really had a ‘Genji’ in English until Seidensticker”), it is a feat of the imagination, a parallel work that speaks of its time as Murasaki’s presumably speaks of hers. This hybrid, we now see, should be read for its own sake — and this is the point of De Gruchy’s book.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.