There is no question that “The Tale of Genji” is a world-class masterpiece of fiction. Written almost exactly 1,000 years ago, it rivals the classic novels of the West in artfulness and psychological depth. Like the prose of Joyce or Nabokov, the style is a rich texture of literary allusion, symbolism and imagery, and like few novels before theirs, it deals candidly with such shocking matters as rape, incest and pedophilia. It is a tragicomedy of manners, comical in spots, sorrowful in others, written by a brilliant widow in her 30s who knew the wayward heart as deeply as she knew the royal court at which she served. It is not the world’s first novel, as sometimes claimed, but it’s the greatest novel written before the modern era, and greater than most written since.
It is questionable, however, whether a new English translation is needed. It was only 14 years ago that Royall Tyler published his superb translation, more faithful to the original than Edward Seidensticker’s of 1976 , which was considerably more faithful than Arthur Waley’s published 50 years earlier. 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.
In this story of an aristocratic lady-killer, Lady Murasaki explores the concept of erotic transference: the tendency to fall for someone who resembles a lost or unattainable loved one. In Genji’s case, he searches for a replacement for the mother who died when he was young, one of the emperor’s many wives. After her death, the emperor finds and marries a young woman who resembles her, and when Genji is old enough, he too falls for her. Knowing he can’t marry her (which doesn’t prevent him from sneaking in and impregnating her one night), he sleeps his way through a troupe of other women of all ages until he spots a 10-year-old girl who likewise resembles his mother. After abducting her, he molds her into his ideal woman. Other characters search for other surrogates, hilariously so in the case of a gentleman who, repulsed by a lady, steals her cat and lavishes all his unrequited love on it, even imagining that they were lovers in a previous lifetime.
All of this is rendered in a style rich in idioms and poetic allusions, which have always been the greatest challenge to Murasaki’s translators. Some ignore them, some work them into the text, others explain them in a footnote. For example, in Chapter 7 the teenage Genji is caught in a comically compromising situation: He arrives for a tryst with a woman in her late 50s on the same night as one of his friends and rivals. In Tyler’s version, Genji reprimands his lover by saying, “I am sure the spider’s behavior was perfectly clear,” alluding to a proverbial poem about a spider foretelling a lover’s visit. Waley simply ignored the allusion, while Seidensticker expands on the original: “This is a fine thing. I’m going. The spider surely told you to expect him, and you didn’t tell me,” and then he appends a footnote explaining the reference. Washburn renders Genji’s brief, allusive line thus: “I saw a spider spinning away when I got here, but I never believed that spiders could foretell a lover’s visit — until now!” Genji’s snippy taunt is lost as these translators pad it out to make sense of it; what we gain in comprehension we lose in style.
Washburn alternates between including explanatory information in the text, as above, and putting it in footnotes. Purists will wish he did more of the latter and less (or none) of the former, for if style rather than content is what elevates a work of fiction to art, then Murasaki’s nuanced, oblique style is repeatedly betrayed. But medieval Japanese culture is so alien to ours that a literal rendition would probably be nearly incomprehensible, so unfortunately it’s a necessary sacrifice.
If nothing else, the publication of this new translation informs (or reminds) readers that there is a Japanese novel out there as complex and masterful as any published in the West. That it was written 1,000 years ago in the Far East, and by a woman, makes us question our long-standing ideas about the roots of the modern novel.
Moore is the author of “The Novel: An Alternative History.”
Michael Dirda is on vacation.