Friday, December 22, 2006

Waley's translation of Genji

The Tale of Genji is a Japanese classic written by a noble woman (Lady Murasaki) at the beginning of the 11th century. Acclaimed as a masterpiece full of sensitivities towards the subtle and intricate ups and downs in the love and suffering of the mortal human being, it is the most highly regarded novel of all time. However, the language is not easily accessible. Without a devoted and long learning, the modern Japanese cannot hope to appreciate the original text of Genji.

As a result, translations into modern Japanese have been attempted several times, including those by famous writers and poets, notably by Junichiro Tanizaki and Akiko Yosano. It is through modern translations that the majority of Japanese get to know Genji.

In a famous anecdote, literary critic Hideo Kobayashi was discussing Genji with the writer Hakucho Masamune. Masamune mentioned that he recently came to appreciate the beauty of Genji. Koabayashi asked him if he was reading Tanizaki or Yosano. Masamune answered "no, I am actually reading the translation by Arthur Waley". In his days, Kobayashi was fond of telling this particular anectodate, as it was felt to be a bit awkward and funny that a domestic writer should get to know the essence of the great novel through a foreign translation.

Waley's translation is beautiful. I am fond of it myself. It is deeply moving. Wet and sentimental expression, normally hard to find in the English language, gives the reader's heart wobbles and waverings. It is as if a moist and poignant wind has blown into a crisp and critical landscape. The marriage of the sentimental novel and the more or less practical language has resulted in an unforgettable masterpiece.

Getting to know the essence of a work in your native tongue through a foreign translation is a wonderful demonstration of interdependency of the cultural development in various parts of the globe.

1 comment:

chris miller said...

I'm thrilled !

(because just having spent 3 luscious months with Waley -- I'm glad that even native speakers enjoyed his translation)

Funny thing, though -- I tried to read it 30 years ago and it put it right to sleep -- while now it keeps me awake all night.