Despite having read many works of Japanese literature over the past five years or so, one which I haven’t managed to get around to as yet is the undisputed classic of J-Lit, Murasaki Shikibu’s epic The Tale of Genji. Having decided, then, that 2014 is the year to rectify this shortcoming, I thought that a nice way to warm up for the main event might be to learn a little more about the book and its history. But how, you might ask? Well, it’s funny you should say that…
The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature (from Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a non-fiction work by well-known scholar and translator Michael Emmerich, in which he takes a close look at the legacy of Lady Murasaki’s classic novel. Surprisingly, though, it’s not a work which lingers overly on the actual book itself; instead, Emmerich discusses the myth of The Tale of Genji as the quintessentially Japanese novel and focuses his energy on some fairly surprising areas.
The book begins in November 2008, with Japan in full Murasaki fever, ready to celebrate the millenium of her work. As the nation rejoices in Genji’s anniversary, praising a novel which has been read for a thousand years, Emmerich takes the reader by the hand, leading them back to the early nineteenth century – where we discover that the idea that The Tale of Genji was always popular is actually not all that accurate.
The truth of the matter is that the 1673 Kogetsushō edition of the book was to be the last new publication of the novel for over two centuries, which meant that while most people had heard of The Tale of Genji, by the start of the nineteenth century, very few had actually ever seen a copy. When you also take into account the fact that the original book was written in an archaic Japanese, rendered in a script illegible to the uninitiated, you begin to realise that Murasaki’s work was in danger of becoming nothing more than a faded memory…
So why is The Tale of Genji world-renowned today? Emmerich has several explanations for this, and they all revolve around the idea of translation, in one form or another:
“Any academic study of ‘Genji’ will inevitably connect, then, in one way or another, to the fields of canonization and translation studies, and to the recent burgeoning interest in world literature.”
p.8 (Columbia University Press, 2013)
However, this idea of ‘translation’ is not limited to what we would expect (a version appearing in a foreign language) – the word is used in a much wider context, explaining a wide range of adaptations.
The first of Emmerich’s ‘translation’ choices is an illustrated serial which began appearing in 1829, Ryūtei Tanehiko’s Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji). This work, a beautifully-illustrated adaptation of the original Genji, brought Murasaki’s story back into the minds of the ordinary people, preventing the classic from disappearing completely from view. Emmerich devotes the first half of his book to Tanehiko’s creation, arguing that far from being a cheap knock-off of a sacred text, the Inaka Genji was actually a worthy adaptation of Genji itself, one that replaced the original in the eyes of most Japanese.
Another important step was the translation of the original work into English, and here too the writer is eager to right common misconceptions. While many credit Arthur Waley’s full translation of The Tale of Genji (the first volume of which was published in 1925) with spreading awareness of the work in the West, Emmerich shows that the earlier partial translation by Kenchō Suematsu in 1882 actually made a much bigger splash than many people realise. It is Suematsu’s work, both in translating and promoting The Tale of Genji, that raises the profile of the novel and leads to the first modern reprints of the book in Japan in 1890 – translation leading to a reappreciation of the text in its native country 🙂
Finally, Emmerich turns his focus towards the first translations of the original text into modern Japanese, a turn of events which allows ordinary Japanese readers to experience the book for the first time. However, even here, he has a few surprises up his sleeve. Instead of heaping all the praise on Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, the famous writer who published three modern translations of the classic, Emmerich again looks at two slightly neglected figures when he apportions praise.
The first is Akiko Yosano, a poet who actually brought out a modern translation of The Tale of Genji a quarter of a century before Tanizaki did. The second is Hakuchō Masamune, a literary critic whose essays on Genji, particularly the ones written after having read Waley’s translation, were a major factor in influencing Tanizaki to take up his pen on behalf of Lady Murasaki and her amorous hero. As he said:
“I have the feeling, though, that if this English translation were translated anew into Japanese, it might attract a large and avid readership that would enjoy it as one of the great novels of the world.” (p.328)
And Tanizaki was obviously listening. Were it not for these two unsung heroes, Genji’s return into the public domain may have been even further delayed…
While a little scholarly at a times, Emmerich’s book is eminently readable, even for lay persons such as myself, and the story behind Genji’s resurrection from literary oblivion is a wonderful one. The first half of the book, centring on Inaka Genji, contains many fascinating illustrations, and the writer explains their significance so skilfully that the reader almost envies the old Tokyoites (Edoites!), wishing there was a copy of Tanehiko’s book to hand. Perhaps not everyone will be as intrigued as I was – however, this is a book that anyone with an interest in Japanese literature is sure to enjoy.
And yet…. There’s something missing from Emmerich’s book, for all its dedicated research, and that’s the original itself. You see, after four-hundred pages about the modern history of the work, I am still, unbelievably, none the wiser as to what actually happens in Murasaki’s story! Some might say that this is an unforgivable oversight on Emmerich’s part, but in fact the opposite is true. All this talk about Genji has just whetted my appetite for the real thing 🙂
That’s enough for today, but if you liked the sound of all this, stay tuned for some more Genji news – I’ll be setting off on my great journey soon enough, and I’ll be happy to have some companions along for the ride…
***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website 🙂