‘The Tale of Genji’ – The Waley Genji

While yesterday’s first step along the road of The Tale of Genji translations looked at a partial version, today’s post focuses on a far more complete text, albeit one that doesn’t always follow the original text as closely as expected. It might not be the first translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s epic novel into English, but it’s a formidable achievement all the same, and a work that has cast long shadows ever since its publication, to the extent that even now, almost a century after its appearance, people still choose it at times over later editions.  Let’s take a look, then, at the first substantial Genji in English – and discuss what makes it good, and what faults lie beneath its flowery façade 😉

Almost half a century after Kenchō Suematsu first introduced English-speaking readers to the Tale, a far more substantial version appeared.  This was the work of Orientalist and poet Arthur Waley, responsible for first introducing many works of classic Chinese and Japanese literature into English.  The Waley Genji was released in six volumes beetween 1925 and 1933, with a full edition appearing in the latter year, a one-volume version of the whole Tale.

Well, almost – for some reason (and I can’t find an explanation anywhere), the Waley Genji is one chapter short.  You see, the brief thirty-eighth section, ‘Suzumushi’, is conspicuous by its absence…  Nevertheless, the book is a landmark achievement, particularly when you consider that Waley, a linguistic autodidact, never even travelled to Asia.  While his translations might seem ‘flawed’ today, what he did was an amazing feat, making his version of the Tale, just like Suematsu’s, well worth reading.

The Waley Genji begins with a nice lengthy intro setting the scene, and here, just like Suematsu, the translator uses British analogies to get through to his target audience:

The Empress had a secret desire to learn Chinese.  The study of this language was considered at the time far too rough and strenuous an occupation for women. There were no grammars or dictionaries, and each horny sentence had to be grappled and mastered like an untamed steer. That Akiko should wish to learn Chinese must have been as shocking to Michinaga as it would have been to Gladstone if one of his daughters had wanted to learn boxing.
‘Introduction’, p.ix

A fascinating image, I’m sure you’ll agree!  This is just one of several ‘interesting’ comparisons, and a hint to the reader that Waley won’t be afraid to take liberties and spice up his text.

Another similarity to the Suematsu version is that there’s a definite V-Lit feel to the text, with the reader charmed and encouraged to settle down for a rollicking read.  However, where it’s slightly different is in the writing, with Waley usually opting for longer sentences, perhaps in an attempt to convey the style of the original text.  He also tends to imbue his text with more passion:

Suddenly forgetting all that had happened and all that was to come, he called her by a hundred pretty names and weeping showered upon her a thousand caresses; but she made no answer.
‘Kiritsubo’ p.9

Another notable feature you can see, even in this short piece, is the way Waley is rather sparing with commas.  Together with the long sentences mentioned above, this has the effect of rushing the reader along somewhat.  It’s a deliberate choice, and it works well at times, but (for me, at least!) it can occasionally be a little distracting.

Many reviews of the Waley Genji focus on his abilities as a poet, and he does take a very different approach to Suematsu.  There’s no attempt to force the poems into ill-fitting English clothes; instead, Waley writes them as they were originally read, in one line in the middle of the text.  Take this example, from the ‘Hanachirusato’ chapter, uttered by Lady Reikeiden on the occasion of Genji’s visit on the eve of his departure for Suma:

‘To these wild gardens and abandoned halls only the scent of orange trees could draw the traveller’s steps!’
‘The Village of Falling Flowers’, p.228

It’s a lovely poem, and it would have been slightly artificial to convert it to a four-line rhyming effort.  However, I’m not convinced that keeping the poems inside the prose really works in English.  It has the effect of burying them, and I much prefer it when they are made to stand out…

However, if there’s anything fans of the Tale will have heard of Waley’s version, it will be probably be his penchant for elaboration and taking liberties.  There are many little touches throughout the book where you suspect he’s playing with the text and familiarising the scene (such as having Genji and his people eat cake instead of rice dumplings!), and it can be very different from other versions in places.  This is especially true for who said what, and here you suspect that later versions will have benefitted from advances in research (in fact, another work on the Tale – review out next week -, confirms that Waley is often winging it in his elegant manner…).

An issue that stands out more than most is the issue of names, with many, of both people and places, being unique to his version.  For example, in the ‘Hashihime’ chapter, the start of the Uji section, the two sisters Ōigimi and Nakanokimi are called Agemaki and Kozeri, which threw me a little.  Are these simply errors?  Interpretations?  Misreadings?  Alternate readings?  I’m afraid you’ll have to find someone far more qualified in classical Japanese than I am if you’re expecting any answers here.

And yet, for most readers these minor issues will be far outweighed by Waley’s success in telling the tale.  He’s a wonderful writer, and you suspect that this was his focus, to bring across the essence of the story and tell it in a way his readers would enjoy.  Take the following short extract, a scene taking place just before Genji’s departure for Suma:

Dawn was beginning to come into the sky and the moon, which had not long risen, darted Its light among the blossoms of the garden trees, now just beyond their prime.  In the courtyard leafy branches cast delicate half-shadows upon the floor, and thin wreaths of cloud sank through the air till they met the first flicker of the white grass-mists which, scarcely perceptible, now quivered in the growing light.
‘Exile at Suma’, p.232

It’s passages like these that charm the reader and succeed in bridging the gap of centuries, drawing us into the action.

The Waley Genji, like the Suematsu Genji, is available in an edition from Tuttle Publishing, but as it’s out of copyright, if you search for ‘Waley Genji PDF’ online, you should be able to find it.  If I’m honest, despite its flaws, if I were picking a Genji translation purely on the basis of reading pleasure, it would probably be the Waley Genji, which is a fairly big compliment to his work.  However, if you’re after accuracy (and Chapter 38!), you might want to look elsewhere – and that’s where the rest of this week’s posts come in.  Drop by next time to see what direction later translations of the Tale take 🙂


7 thoughts on “‘The Tale of Genji’ – The Waley Genji

    1. I recently read Steven Moore’s two volumes on the novel from antiquity to 1800 and it got me excited about Japanese and Chinese literature. On Waley’s translation of Genji Moore says he turned it into a ‘romantic Edwardian novel’ but he did a great service to literature by translating it.


      1. Jonathan – It was certainly a magnificent achievement of its time, but is it still relevant and necessary in our time? That’s the question 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. How interesting! I think lots of early translations used to stick less closely to the originals – Constance Garnett springs to mind – yet managed to convey much of the actual text being translated. It might be good to read this one alongside one with more fidelity to the original.


    1. Kaggsy – I just read another book translated by Edward Seidensticker, where he talks about this being his second attempt at it, where the first one was rather free. This was around 1960, and he said that times had moved on and approaches to translation had changed!

      Liked by 1 person

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