‘The Tale of Genji,” written by Murasaki Shikibu around 1,000 A.D., is regarded by many as the world’s first novel and is arguably the most influential work of Japanese literature ever written, inspiring countless other works of drama, fiction and fine art.

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, Translated by Dennis Washburn.
1360 pages
W. W. Norton, Fiction.

This titanic tome, coming in at well over 1,000 pages in English translation, is the ultimate challenge for any literary translator of Japanese novels.

“It took me 15 years of steady, almost daily, work,” says Dennis Washburn, a professor at Dartmouth College in the U.S. who recently joined the elite corps of translators that have produced English-language versions of Murasaki’s classic. It’s a novel that relates the life story of Prince Genji — an illegitimate but beloved son of the Emperor — and his many love affairs. Unusually, the novel also continues to follow the intrigues and disappointments of a second generation of characters close to the Imperial throne.

English researcher of China and Japan Arthur Waley made the first complete translation of the novel, which was published in the mid-1920s, and there have been subsequent translations by Edward Seidensticker in 1976 and Royall Tyler in 2001.

And now there is Washburn. He first read the novel in translation in the late 1970s and then studied the original work in graduate school a decade later. He was approached by the publisher W. W. Norton with the idea of producing a new translation in 1998, but couldn’t begin work on it until 2000.

“I had never considered doing a translation of it before then,” he says. “And to be honest, I had to think a long time before undertaking the work. It was a daunting prospect and I wasn’t confident.”

Each new translation of “The Tale of Genji” differs greatly from those that precede it. Waley’s interest in the Orient — delivered in the ornate Bloomsbury Set English of the early 20th century — contrasted with Seidensticker’s plain presentation of court politics, which he produced in the ’70s, the age of Watergate. Meanwhile, Tyler attempted to restore the poetic flavor to the text, making his sentences longer, more complicated and allusive, and studded his translation with footnotes and scholarly exegesis, though he occasionally abbreviated the meaning to fit with his style.

“I genuinely respect all of these translations,” Washburn says. “They each do different things well. However, there can never be a definitive translation of an important work like the ‘Genji,’ and so I had a couple of key aims for my version.”

Washburn wanted his translation to read with the same immediacy that the work had for readers when it was first published during the Heian Period (794-1185), while also reproducing the richness of language and allusion that makes Murasaki such an extraordinary stylist.

Where Seidensticker writes in a single sentence, “The autumn tempests blew and suddenly the evenings were chilly,” with Tyler this becomes a brief introductory clause to a much longer sentence: “At dusk one blustery and suddenly chilly day.” Washburn’s version occupies half the sentence — “The winds of autumn were stirring, the dusk air suddenly began to chill the skin … ” — his Genji rests between Seidensticker’s and Tyler’s as he attempts to balance textual clarity and sumptuousness.

A further difficulty is rendering the text in a way that modern readers can relate to.

“As alien as the world of the Heian court seems to us now, characters such as Genji, Ukifune and Kaoru are remarkably complex and complicated,” he says. “Kaoru in particular strikes me as an especially great literary creation. The narrative as a whole shows a similar complexity. It celebrates court values while offering a sharp critique of the foibles and contradictions of the society — especially the tendency of male courtiers to idolize women while exerting extreme control over them.

“The emotional and moral stakes represented in the fictional world are as recognizable and relevant now as they were when the tale was written,” Washburn says, when asked how the book connects to the world in 2015.

My eye was caught in particular by a line in his scholarly 30-page introduction where he observes that the characters are “torn between the fleeting appeal of material, secular culture and a religiously motivated desire to escape worldly attachments.” The same could be said of some of the great ideological conflicts in the world today.

“The fundamental struggle between spiritual and worldly goods and values in the text has real resonance with the kinds of ideological struggles that have roiled the modern world,” he says. Washburn sounds particularly informed by the concerns of our own multicultural world, emphasizing his focus on “the presence of multiple perspectives (in ‘The Tale of Genji’) and voices that are often introspective and self-aware.”

Regardless of how informed he was, no background knowledge could have prepared Washburn for the immensity of the 15-year project.

“I started with a literal translation,” he says, “which took about six years to complete. Of course, that was laughably unreadable, but I wanted something of the original language to distort or ‘flavor’ my English.”

The “literal” version allowed Washburn time to figure out what his aims were. During the next four years he produced a second translation that formed the basis of the current version, which he then spent a further five years editing and honing with more research.

For one to spend 15 years on a translation project, they must have an sense of the secret to the eternal appeal of Murasaki’s tale.

“The beauty of the prose, the outrageousness of some of the affairs chronicled — sometimes comic in nature — and the poetic content,” Washburn says. “It can be read and reread on so many levels.”

And being read and reread is exactly the honor he hopes his translation can receive — that it will become as widely read by people around the world as the great Western classics.

“Yes, I really do,” he says. “For that reason I hope that readers will at least enjoy my version of the text. Translating is too humbling a task to hope for anything more than that.”

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