[Text of a lecture presented by Professor Tyler at the Japanese Studies Centre, Monash University, on 10 October, 2003.]
It is a pleasure for me to speak to you today, and I thank Alison Tokita for having invited me to do so. My project to translate The Tale of Genji - a project that I began in late 1993 - was obviously conceived under a lucky star. Not only did I somewhat unaccountably enjoy generous ARC(*) support from the start, but all sorts of other things fell into place as well, in their time. For example, I was also able to spend a total of sixteen months in Japan on various kinds of Japanese government funding. Meanwhile, by a stroke of especially good fortune, the New York branch of Penguin, my publisher, became sufficiently exasperated with the home office in London to take over the entire project; whereupon, money for illustrations suddenly materialized, and the planned book rose several levels in material quality. In fact, the project so inspired everyone concerned, from the production manager to the chief copy editor - not to mention my editor, who orchestrated everything - that the result was even better than planned. Eventually I asked Penguin in New York why they had treated so grandly a massive novel written a thousand years ago in Japan. They told me the deciding factor had been the commercial success of Robert Fagles' translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In other words, poluphloboisterous Homer of old, assisted by a distinguished Princeton professor, had cleared the way for the Genji author, the lady known to posterity as Murasaki Shikibu, to appear suitably dressed in the English-speaking world.
This stirring example of solidarity among classical authors calls to mind the appraisal of Homer written in the 16th century by Montaigne. Montaigne wrote, as I informally translate him,
The first more or less complete translation of the tale into any foreign language was made by - you are probably expecting me to say Arthur Waley, into English, between 1925 and 1933. Actually, though, I mean Yosano Akiko, the great woman of letters who in 1913 published the first translation into modern Japanese. In the case of Genji, modern Japanese, too, is a foreign language, and Yosano Akiko's translation is in its way as free, and as not-quite-complete, as Waley's. Later modern Japanese translations, of which there are many, vary just as much in character as translations into English or other languages.
At any rate, Waley's beautiful rendering established the tale's reputation in English and pleased even a particularly cantankerous Japanese reader. The literary critic Masamune Hakuchô, widely read in the Japanese classics, found the original so frustrating that he compared reading it to peering through dense fog. In fact, he accused the author - whose writing people usually praise - of inflicting on the reader an "absolutely awful style.'' Hakuchô wrote that he never actually enjoyed Genji until he read Waley's translation on a trip through the Suez Canal. However, he recognized that its magic was as much Waley's as the author's and found its enchantment thoroughly exotic. That enchantment has lasted. Less than two years ago I met a distinguished professor from an equally distinguished English Department, who spoke of her deep admiration for The Tale of Genji, which she knew only in Waley's translation. When I asked her what she liked most about it, her answer tipped me off immediately. Alas, her favorite bits were the ones that Waley had largely invented.
In time, an academic reaction against Waley set in. Edward Seidensticker, its champion, published his translation of the tale in 1976. He did no embroidering, nor did he cut anything, as Waley had done - in one case, a whole chapter. His version set a new standard of accuracy, and its style was far more accessible to American readers in the 1980's or 90's than Waley's had become by then. (Alas, I have met American students who claim not to be able to read Waley, and I certainly have colleagues who fulminate against his language in ways that make them sound, quite unwittingly, almost illiterate.) In tone and perspective, as well, Seidensticker's translation was so different from Waley's that it inaugurated a new era in Genji studies in English. So much for the idea, to which I will return, that literary translation is a mindless pastime unworthy of a genuine scholar.
Perhaps I might briefly survey Genji translations into languages other than modern Japanese, before pass on to my own. Waley's version was retranslated into several languages, including German and Italian, but that dubious phenomenon need not concern us today. Complete translations made directly from the original exist in German, French, Russian, Korean, and Chinese (one each for Taiwan and the People's Republic), while others are currently under way into Italian, Czech, and Finnish. English is the only European language that used to boast two, and that now boasts three.
I have often been asked why I undertook this third translation. Translation of Japanese literature into English having begun relatively recently, I used to assume that in many people's estimation there is no point in redoing a work that has already been "done,'' since what matters is to make it "available,'' as they say, in English and then move on. In other words, once the work has been "introduced'' in English, there is no point in "introducing'' it again. I took it for granted that this issue would have been forgotten by now in the case of the Western classics, their "introduction'' phase having passed long ago; but Robert Fagles told me that people ask him, too, why in the world he translated the Iliad and the Odyssey yet again. Those who ask the question do not understand that the job of translation will never be done for good, and that, in any case, there will always be people like me who like to translate, whether their product is needed or not.
Of course, now that I have done it, I sometimes wonder how well I succeeded. Perhaps I am a little like those cooks who cannot enjoy their own cooking in the presence of their guests. I did my best, but did I really achieve what I aimed for? Rereading the original sometimes - for me, at least - makes my translation seem labored and serious in comparison. Then tale's image of the professional scholar comes to mind.
The scholars in The Tale of Genji mean well, but they are awkward and self-important. I will read you the scene in which the young son of Genji, the hero, is inducted as a student into the court Academy, where he is to be educated in the Chinese classics.
"Fie upon your manners, sirs! You presume to serve His Majesty, yet you fail to know a man of my renown? You are fools, sirs!"
The company broke into laughter.
"Silence! I will have silence! Your conduct is disgraceful! Sirs, I must require you to leave!"
Such magisterial censure was great fun. Those who had never heard anything like it before thought it a rare treat, and the senior nobles who had come through the Academy beamed with satisfaction... Was there a buzz of talk? They put a stop to it. A cheeky remark? They issued their rebuke.
But before going further, I should perhaps say a little more about The Tale of Genji itself. I have named the author, made it clear that she was a woman, and highlighted the admiration that readers have always felt for her work. No one knows exactly when she began or when she finished the tale, but the most likely period of years lies between about 1003 and 1013. The tale seems to have been recognized as a classic well before a century had passed, and it soon became an object of study. A short set of glosses survives from the twelfth century, at the end of which the greatest man of letters of the day collated a wide variety of manuscripts - none of them the original - in order to define the text that remains the basis of all commonly available modern editions. By the fourteenth century, scholarly commentaries had reached book length, and they continued to grow. Meanwhile, knowledge of The Tale of Genji had already become essential for the practice of poetry, canonically recognized in Japan as the highest of all the arts. In the present, The Tale of Genji supports the same sort of academic industry that Shakespeare and so on do elsewhere, as well as an abundance of popular writing, film, manga comics, musical theater, opera, dance, kabuki, and other arts of all kinds.
A similar sort of popular reception is now developing in the English-speaking world. The opera I just mentioned was commissioned by an American opera company, and an American author's fictional autobiography of Murasaki Shikibu has sold well recently on both sides of both oceans. The tale has many fans who know no Japanese, and it is routinely taught in university courses. It no longer belongs solely to Japan.
It is in this sort of context that my translation appeared. Colleagues tell me they and their students are enthusiastic about it (of course, I do not hear from the dissenters), and there are some gratifying reader reviews, interspersed with quite unhelpful ones, even on Amazon.com. Thanks to a few friends in Japan, the Japanese academic world is now aware of it as well. In short, it is doing fine.
I felt the challenge of Genji because I had known ever since graduate school that I had a penchant for translation. At first I was not very good at it, although I put my heart into trying. I began by translating a few plays of the medieval Noh theater, and one of my Noh translations even became known in Japan as a meiyaku - roughly, a "great translation.'' However, I could never see why, since as far as I could tell I had come nowhere near doing the work justice. Eventually I dropped out and moved to the New Mexico desert, but even there, I still found myself wrestling with the challenge of translating some of those magnificent plays, and particularly of getting the so-called meiyaku one right. I remember pacing up and down for hours, on the valley floor between the Chiricahua and the Peloncillo Mountains, among the scrub mesquite and the ephedra bushes, struggling with a single phrase.
During that period of my life, some thirty years ago, I did not yet read Old Japanese very well. (This situation is by no means uncommon, even for a specialist.) However, I eventually became quite good at Noh plays, so I went on to try other things. Some of them were distinctly easier, but others remained completely beyond me. One of these was The Tale of Genji. Decades later, when I decided to have a go at translating it, the very idea still seemed absurd. I knew from the experience of reading a chapter or two of the original with students that my grasp of its language was unreliable; and there was also the cautionary example of Masamune Hakuchô, who could not read it to his satisfaction either. On the other hand, Arthur Waley and Edward Seidensticker had managed to leave the impression that they could make something of it; so I decided to consider the matter further.
I decided to read the original from the beginning, and never to go on to the next page until I had understood the one I was on. Eventually I reached about the middle of the book, but by then I had signed a contract with Penguin; so I thought I had better get on with the job. I was soon wondering what had given me the idea that I had ever understood a single paragraph. I could only look back wistfully on the experience of translating a book of folktales by the French writer Henri Pourrat. French being a language I actually know, I just typed. Genji was very different, but I persevered until I actually got to the end. Perhaps that is success enough for one lifetime.
I had in mind before I began a certain conception of what I wanted to achieve - an idea of what the people in the tale were like and of what sort of English they would speak. It was an English almost beyond my reach, the one spoken by my grandparents and the people I had known around them when I was young. I followed no literary model because I doubted my ability to imitate one and get away with it. Even so, the language I listened for in my memory often eluded me, and I know that what I wrote often fails to match my conception. Still, without that conception I would have been lost. It is as Seamus Heaney wrote in his introduction to his translation of Beowulf,
The most recent translator of the tale into modern Japanese, a novelist and Buddhist nun named Setouchi Jakuchô who published her work in 1997, pitched it to the widest possible audience. She made it perfectly clear and unambiguous, so that anyone could enjoy it on a packed commuter train or bus. That was not my goal, although I have nothing against brisk sales, because it seemed so much at variance with the character of the original. The original readers of Genji were in no hurry, and they appreciated a rich, copious work that required them to come forward, as it were, to meet it halfway, in a process of fully engaged listening or reading. I therefore hoped to draw the modern reader into something like that kind of active engagement. Among other things, I translated long sentences into long sentences, and I preserved the discretion and decorum of the narration.
Discretion and decorum have to do, first, with the way the narrator refers to her characters. She names no one in the course of eleven hundred pages except three minor, relatively low-ranking men, because she speaks from within the social world inhabited by the characters themselves and so must treat them, as her characters themselves do, with a respect that forbids the use of personal names. Instead, she uses their official titles, which change over time; or, if they have none, she designates them according to where they live, from a neighborhood in the city down to a part of a house. Although true to life in the author's world, this practice makes it difficult to discuss her characters at all, and so Japanese readers settled centuries ago on nicknames for the most important of them. An example is Aoi, the name readers give to Genji's first wife. In the text Aoi has no name whatever, being known at best as the daughter of the Minister of the Left.
I followed the narrator's practice in this respect because I wanted first to preserve her fictional identity as a gentlewoman recounting actual events to her mistress and, second, to convey the acute consciousness of hierarchy shared by everyone in the tale. To bring it off at all I had to be able to remind the reader now and again, by means of a footnote or other supporting material, who such-and-such a character is. The character Murasaki, from whom the author received her nickname, illustrates why the attempt was worthwhile. She is the great love of the hero's life, but during most of their years together she is in his shadow - the more so because her birth, compared to his, is relatively low. However, near the end of her life she rises in stature, and a telling sign of her rise is that the narrator more and more often calls her openly Murasaki no Ue, or "Lady Murasaki.'' The effect would have been lost if I had called her "Murasaki'' from the beginning, when the text does not. Of course, for most readers that effect will be only subliminal, but that does not matter. My translation is full of intentional touches that I do not expect anyone to notice.
The other kind of discretion I meant has to do with preferring indirection to bluntness. The characters seldom call a spade a spade, and moreover their notion of "spade'' is very broad. Although the issue of marriage is prominent in the tale, the narrative has no stable word or locution for "marriage'' or even for "husband.'' Another recurring preoccupation for some of the characters is the wish to leave the world and become a monk or a nun. Nonetheless, the narrator avoids words like "monk'' and "nun,'' or even expressions such as "leave the world'' or "take holy orders.'' The reader soon comes to know that Genji himself has such thoughts, but all he ever mentions is a wish to act on his "long-standing desire'' (hoi). Previous translators into various languages, including modern Japanese, have not hesitated to identify this "spade'' unequivocally - Yosano Akiko even had one of the main characters wish to "enter upon a life of faith'' - but it seemed to me that I might strike a false note by doing so.
I will discuss two more aspects of my translation before I move on to say a little about the connection between literary translation and academic research. The first has to do with the way I treated interior monologue, and the second has to do with poetry.
A feature of Japanese grammar, especially in this earlier period of the language, is that it offers only direct, not indirect speech. It is not possible to say, "He said he would go.'' One can only say, "He said, `I will go'.'' A passage reporting the gist of what someone said therefore looks as though it is repeating the speaker's precise words. A reader familiar with indirect speech, as the tale's original audience was not, easily gathers most of the time that the words reported are unlikely to be those originally spoken, or certainly not all of them; but the exclusive use of direct speech certainly gives the narrative freshness and immediacy. Imagine, then, the effect of reporting a character's silent thoughts in exactly the same way, as unvoiced speech.
Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been the first Japanese writer to exploit interior monologue fully as a narrative technique. When it appears, one suddenly finds oneself listening directly to a character's thoughts, as in the following example from chapter 49. A young man whose great love has died nurses his sorrow, even as his politically advantageous but otherwise unwelcome marriage approaches. The text shifts from third-person narration to first person interior monologue and back again.
Poetry was integral to Japanese court life eight to ten centuries ago, and so it is integral also to the fiction of the time, in the form of the thirty-one syllable tanka. Japanese poetry does not rely on rhyme, which the nature of the language would make too easy to be interesting; nor does it rely on quantity, which the nature of the language would render impossible. Instead, it is characterized by a variety of sophisticated linguistic devices that I need not explain today, and by syllable count. A tanka consists of five sub-units (not lines) of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables each.
Good manners required every member of the nobility to compose such poems at suitable junctures, and every young lord or lady was brought up so as to be able to do so, although naturally not every effort was a great success. There are 795 poems in The Tale of Genji. It is difficult to overstate their importance, readers over the centuries having often valued them above the prose. In fact, for hundreds of years the tale was seen by many as above all a manual of poetic composition. Readers like that are rare today, in Japan or elsewhere, if indeed they exist at all, but the poems certainly command the translator's care and respect.
Alas, I doubted when I began my work that I could convey their effect successfully in English. I also assumed that many readers would object to being interrupted time after time by baffling little clumps of what claimed to be verse. I therefore made my poems as discreet as possible and stuck to the method I had adopted until about two third of the way through, when I had to concede that even I could no longer stand what I was doing. I saw that I would have to retranslate all the poems. But how? I decided to try following the Japanese syllable count in English, as some other translators have done in other contexts. After rejecting the five little lines that are so common in translations of this kind, I finally settled on two lines, centered: the first of five-seven-five syllables and the second of seven-seven. Success took time and practice, but eventually I came to feel reasonably confident that things had gone well.
As an example, I will cite a passage from chapter 10 ("Sakaki,'' which I translate as "The Green Branch.'') It is a simple sequence of three poems, voiced by three different people, in a spirit of mourning for the late emperor, Genji's father.
"Alas, that great pine whose broad shade inspired such trust seems to
live no more,
for the year's last days are here, and the lower needles fall.''
The poem was no masterpiece, but it caught their feelings so well that Genji's tears moistened his sleeves.
Seeing the lake frozen from shore to shore, Genji added,
"That face I once saw, clear in the spotless mirror of this frozen
I shall never see again, and I am filled with sorrow.''
His artless words merely gave voice to his heart.
The empress's gentlewoman offered,
"The year soon will end, the spring there among the rocks is caught
fast in ice,
and the forms we knew so well vanish from before our eyes.''
I will to turn now to two small, prose examples in order to illustrate the way I sometimes felt obliged to take a strong (rather than a euphemistic or equivocal) position on what the text actually means. It is at spots like these that the distinction between translation and research begins visibly to blur.
The first, from chapter 2 ("Hahakigi,'' "The Broom Tree''), is scandalously famous. Genji, then only sixteen, is in an amorously enterprising mood when chance leads him to spend a night at a retainer's house. The young mistress of the house is no further away than the other side of an unlocked sliding door, and her husband is off in the provinces. That night Genji steals through the door, locates her by the dim glow of an oil lamp, and, after a flood of sweet talk, picks her up and carries her into another, pitch-dark room. She resists him fiercely from the start (in words, tone of voice, and so on) not because she finds him repellant - far from it - but because the social gulf between them is too great and because she insists nonetheless on her own dignity. Her rejection genuinely upsets Genji, who finally sees her point; but then he just redoubles his eloquence. The text continues,
Her genuine horror and revulsion at his willfulness shocked him, and her tears touched him. It pained him to be the culprit, but he knew that he would have been sorry not to have seen her.
Early commentaries either say nothing or deny everything. In the late eighteenth century a great scholar acknowledged that the inevitable had happened, but some after him continued to prefer denial or silence. Among English translators Arthur Waley wrote, "He would not gladly have missed that sight,'' while Edward Seidensticker left it at "would not for the world have missed the experience.'' But what experience? At an early stage of my work, I read the passage over and over again, grasping blindly for something I knew I was missing. Then, suddenly, I got it, and I caught my breath at the narrative's unexpected frankness. In the language of the tale, a man who "sees'' (miru) a woman is living with her in a relationship founded on sexual intimacy. Intercourse itself is seldom the issue, but in this instance the pitch-dark room and the fact that the two have only just met leave no other possibility. Genji cannot have "seen'' her in the dark. Therefore I wrote, "He knew that he would have been sorry not to have had her.'' Such is the force of the expression.
This episode remains controversial to this day, in an age when many Japanese as well as American students, and even some professors, condemn Genji as a rapist. (This is not an attitude I have met in Australia, but my experience of teaching the work here is very limited.) A few years ago, an American colleague therefore set out to rehabilitate him, arguing in an article that he is not a rapist because in this instance he never actually passes to the act or that, in others, the woman involved has not really withheld her consent. The colleague in question therefore denied that the expression I just mentioned means what it means. Alas, if the only way to prove that Genji is not a rapist is to prove that he never has intercourse with a woman without her consent, then his cause is lost. Fortunately, however, the issue for the author and her narrator is elsewhere. In fact, a correct reading of the original gives the whole affair new immediacy and actually lends the woman in question new strength and depth as a character.
My second example of a translation problem comes from chapter 53 ("Tenarai,'' or "Writing Practice''), the next to last in the tale. Unlike the one I just discussed it is neither famous nor infamous, and any rendition of it would have done. However, the passage - the key part of it is only a few words long - was critical to my reading of the character concerned, and I wanted very much to get it right, if possible.
This character, a young woman known as Ukifune (in the original she has no name at all), has been through an experience so strange that few general readers - as distinguished from specialists, especially recent ones - seem even to understand what it is. An evil spirit picked her up bodily and carried her off to a place where, eventually, some monks found her. A nun then undertook to look after her. However, she remained unconscious, in a sort of trance, for over two months, until exorcism returned her more or less to herself, in state of semi-amnesia. In the passage in question, she receives a great fright. In the middle of the night another occupant of the room where she is sleeping, an old nun, sits up and demands to know what she is doing there. Ukifune thinks she is a demon. In my translation she reacts as follows
The issue is her mental condition. Almost all readers believe that, far from having been abducted by a spirit, she threw herself into the nearby river in order to drown herself and was then washed downstream to the place where she was found. They also believe that, having recovered from her ordeal, she is now completely well and in the process of gaining, heroically, her full independence from the detestable world that had driven her to contemplate so desperate an act. What I gather from her story, however, is that she is still unstable and in fact insane. Exorcism certainly loosened the spirit's grip on her, but the narrative makes it clear, at least to me, that the spirit never completely her. Read in this light, her talk of "shocking guise'' evokes not an embarrassingly undignified state of dress and so on (the usual interpretation), but a state of spirit possession; while "I became human'' suggests less "I returned to my senses,'' than, "From being possessed by a non-human power, I returned to the condition of a human being.'' Finally, her exclamation, "Bewilderment, terror - oh yes, I have feelings!'' is especially intriguing. The original sentence is almost unintelligible except in the context of other, related passages. It suggests that, even after the exorcism, Ukifune remains almost without human affect, as though she were caught in a sort of waking trance. The fright I described then shocks her briefly into a normal state of awareness, so that she can now say, almost in surprise, "Bewilderment, terror - oh yes, I have feelings!'' Overall, my reading of Ukifune makes of this popular heroine something utterly different from what readers have been imagining for centuries. It is not possible to prove definitively that I am right, but I doubt that anyone can definitely prove me wrong, and my reading may therefore have value as a contribution to scholarship on the work. Certainly, it is a critical to a new interpretation of the entire Tale of Genji, one that I have set forth in a series of articles published over the last four years. No, literary translation is by no means mindless work.
That is worth saying in many countries these days, but probably nowhere more so than in Australia. At the beginning of my talk I acknowledged, with gratitude but also with surprise, the generous support I received from the ARC. Things have changed since then, and I can hardly imagine doing as well with the same project now. Quite apart from changes in research priorities, DETYA(*) (or whatever it is currently called) has hardened its line toward translation, in connection with its assignment of monetary value to different types of academic publication. Translation is now formally defined as non-academic, hence of zero value. This issue must concern some of you, in a situation in which winning outside research grants has become more and more central to individual and collective success in the academic world. At any rate, all this has led to a curious result in the case of my Tale of Genji. Having retired from ANU at the end of 2000, just before the final phase of the publication process began, I had myself appointed a Visiting Fellow precisely so that the Faculty of Asian Studies should be able benefit from the book. After the book came out, I was therefore asked to provide materials and arguments to back ANU's claim that it was a research publication. The Faculty and I both hoped that six years of ARC support, not to mention a few thousand footnotes and copious appendices, might make a convincing case. And perhaps they did. However, nearly two years later, and despite sporadic inquiries, I still do not know whether the final decision was favorable or not.
Well, never mind. My work on The Tale of Genji was personally rewarding in all sorts of ways - not the least of these being years of lively discussion of the book with my wife, who knows it extremely well and who has all sorts of valuable things to say about it. Thanks to Genji, my career has continued well beyond retirement, at conferences and institutions overseas, and in the pages of learned journals. Moreover, those years of daily practice at translating this notoriously difficult text have finally given me the ability to read - as distinguished from decipher - the other surviving works of fiction from roughly the same period. These are generally far inferior to Genji, but that does not mean they are bad, and they are certainly fascinating for someone who already knows Genji well. In short, my decision to translate The Tale of Genji has brought me many blessings. I only hope that, despite benighted opinion, other scholarly translators have been, are, and will in the future be as lucky.
(* ARC: Australian Research Council; DETYA: The Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Australian Federal Government))