‘The Tale of Genji’ – Ranking the Translations

Well, the last six days have seen me casting a critical eye over various English-language translations of Murasaki Shikibu’s classic novel The Tale of Genji, and I’ve had a lot of fun comparing the different versions, praising them at times and throwing shade at them at others.  Now, though, it’s time to deliver my final verdict, and with the Tokyo Olympics having recently come to a close, you can consider this as the final event of those games, with the six contenders vying for gold.  But who will be standing on the top of the podium, waving to the (admittedly sparse) crowd, and who will be left in tears, vowing to come back in three years’ time in Paris?  On your marks, get set…

Before we get into the rankings, my Olympic musings have reminded me of a further parallel between high-level sport and translation.  Just as it’s been easy for us armchair experts to critique superhumans participating in events we’d never even heard of a month ago (“Yeah, the Frenchman made a mess of the bouldering, he should have got a better grip before trying to go to the next hold”), it’s all too tempting to shake your head in disdain and wonder what Tyler, Seidensticker et al. were thinking when they put together a particular sentence.

The reality, of course, is that all of the translators should be applauded for attempting to bring the Tale into English, grappling with an ambiguous text in a dead language and doing their best to produce a version that sings in a very different tongue.  Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s the taking part that counts, and I’m very grateful to all the translators whose work I’ve tried over the past month or so.  Reading multiple versions of Lady Murasaki’s work has certainly given me a greater appreciation of the story as a whole.

I’m also aware that these are incredibly subjective opinions from a reader who is far from an expert on the topic, and who is necessarily biased by having read one of the versions first.  In truth, I’ve spent most of my time using that version as a yardstick, seeing how the others measure up to that standard, which will probably have affected my views.  In short, don’t regard my take on these translations as gospel…

With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get into it (you can click on the link in each title to go to the full review post) – whose Genji will reign supreme?

6) The Suematsu Genji (Kenchō Suematsu, 1872)

Bringing up the rear in this particular race is Suematsu’s nineteenth-century effort, which isn’t to say that it’s not worth a look.  There’s a definite charm to his Victorian prose, with hints of Trollopian rhythm lending a certain something to Heian-era life, and I quite enjoyed his westernising of the poetic structure, too.  However, it would be too much to expect the Suematsu Genji to overcome two major handicaps, namely a tendency to summarise rather than translate in places, as well as the fact that he only left us seventeen of the fifty-four canonical chapters.  This certainly wouldn’t be the first place I’d point newcomers to, but I suspect that readers with prior knowledge of other versions would quite enjoy perusing this one.

5) The McCullough Genji (Helen Craig McCullough, 1994)

I just about managed to fit in a quick look at this one towards the end of the week, and I’m very glad I did as it’s one of the more enjoyable reads among the half-dozen versions.  So, why is it down at number five?  Well, given that it only contains ten chapters (and one of those I read was only half-complete), this is probably as high as I could rank it, but rest assured that if the quality had been continued throughout the whole of Lady Murasaki’s tale, this one would have been placed much higher.  As it is, the McCullough Genji is still worth a look, and as I said in my post, it might even be a nice starting point for a reader new to classical Japanese literature since the edition contains extracts from The Tale of the Heike, too.  If you need any more persuading, just know that I’m keeping an eye out for a cheap second-hand copy myself…

4) The Washburn Genji (Dennis Washburn, 2015)

The Washburn Genji may well be the latest offering, but I can’t say that it’s an improvement on its predecessors.  It seems marked more by its reaction to a previous translation than its own style, and its determination to stand out ultimately dooms it to mediocrity.  The main issue here is the bloated nature of the prose, with Washburn determined to stuff most of the information other versions fitted into footnotes into the main text.  The result is a much longer, duller work that I found a chore to read at times (in fact, when I drafted this post, the Washburn Genji was in at number three, but after reading more, it actually slid down the list).  The poetry’s OK, and the introduction is one of the more informative efforts, but overall his attempt to combine the best of the previous versions doesn’t really pan out.

3) The Seidensticker Genji (Edward Seidensticker, 1976)

Several generations grew up with the Seidensticker Genji as their main gateway to the Tale, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my decision here made a few people unhappy, with many readers considering this to be the version others are judged by.  It certainly does all it promises, with Seidensticker fulfilling his vow to say just what the original writer said, and no more, and I certainly didn’t find reading it a chore (as was the case with the book immediately below it in the rankings…).  Sadly, though, there’s often a deficit of style here, and I wasn’t a fan of what I found to be stiff, rather robotic prose and poetry that paled beside some of the other versions.  In reacting against a predecessor, Seidensticker went too far in the opposite direction, and that means he only gets my (imaginary) bronze.

2) The Waley Genji (Arthur Waley, 1925-1933)

You might be surprised to see a version from almost a century ago ranking so highly in my list, and it’s true that there are major issues with Waley’s version of the Tale.  Quite apart from the unexplained omission of one chapter, there’s his tendency to, well, ‘elaborate’ on the text, and there are many places where the other translators have interpreted events rather differently.  Despite these flaws, the Waley Genji is a version I enjoyed immensely, and in terms of the beauty of the writing, he’s probably ahead of the pack.  Let’s just say that if I were to treat myself to another edition of the Tale, I suspect that this is the version I would opt for, which is enough justification for the ranking in my book 🙂

1) The Tyler Genji (Royall Tyler, 2001)

In my post on the Tyler translation, I did warn readers that it was the home-town favourite, so it should come as little surprise to see this one holding the gold medal up for the cameras.  With its more allusive style and the almost complete lack of personal names, it’s a translation that might cause some people a few headaches, and this version is also the most academic of the six I sampled.  However, for me, this is what a translation of The Tale of Genji should be, a text that allows the modern reader to understand and appreciate the story without pretending that it’s something it’s not.  The story was written over a thousand years ago – let’s not dumb it down and pretend it was written yesterday.  Yes, reading the Tyler Genji demands concentration and perseverance, but the rewards it offers far outweigh any difficulties.

So there you have it, the Tyler Genji takes the main prize, and the praise of the adoring fans, in my entirely imaginary Genji Olympics – congratulations to everyone involved (especially Lady Murasaki!).

That’s all for now of my views on the book, but I suspect that my half-baked opinions may have left some readers a little unsatisfied – and if that’s the case, I’ve got some good news for you.  You see, my adventures at Rokujō don’t end there, and next week I’ll be examining a couple of works that take a closer look at the Tale, including one where someone with far more authority than I have casts their eye over a number of translations.

And when I say a number…


11 thoughts on “‘The Tale of Genji’ – Ranking the Translations

  1. Hmm, I think I know exactly who you mean when you refer to the unhappy people about your Seidensticker Bronze Medal! 😉
    I can understand the charm of the Waley, but I really cannot give it the silver… However, yes, I do admit that the Tyler is probably objectively the most complete and thoughtful of the translations. I still think that Seidensticker is a good gateway into the Genji world for complete novices…


    1. Marina Sofia – Well, you should be glad he made the podium as he was in fourth spot originally! I can see why the Waley might be a surprising runner-up, but this was all rather subjective, and I never warmed to Seidensticker’s style…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, as I told you, back at university, we used to talk to each other in Waley’s overblown, flowery style for laughs… which is rather ironic, considering that Romanian language and literature can often be more like that, rather than the austere Seidensticker style.


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