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The Broom Tree Revisited

ISSUE:  Spring 1977
The Tale of Genji. By Murasaki Shikibu. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Knopf: Two volumes, boxed. $25.00.

It has long been and, to a large extent, still is, the case that, if one were to enquire of a native Japanese critic which of the works of his literature is “the greatest,” Genji Monogatari would be rated not merely as among the greatest, or as belonging in the ten greatest, but as, unhesitatingly, the greatest. For a novel that was completed very early in the llth century, this evaluation is surely remarkable. And unlike the literature of most other nations, it is written in a language that exists today. True, the average educated man cannot simply sit down and read The Tale of Genji in an early edition or manuscript. The old Heian court forms of address and expression are no longer current, and many of the verbs, for example, are meaningless to a modern reader. But it is written in Japanese, and it is a very Japanese work. It has had enormous influence, not merely upon the literature but upon the arts of Japan, for instance, in a field like byobu (the folding screens). Clearly, this book, even though very long, is worthy of being rendered into the various European languages since it is the foundation-stone of a thousand-year-old tradition, a tradition longer than any other of what can properly be called “the novel.”

But why a new translation when, in fact, a highly-regarded rendering of this work by the late Arthur Waley is easily available in English? This question is not rhetorical. If one were to list the really brilliant translations of the classics of oriental literature into our language, Waley’s The Tale of Genji would certainly rank at or near the top. Most of us who have come to know and appreciate the literature of Japan cut our teeth, so to speak, on this translation; and Edward Seidensticker, as is clear from his Introduction to the present publication, was no exception. Mr. Seidensticker does indeed provide a brief apologia for his monumental effort. To begin with, his translation is complete. Earlier ones, including Waley’s, were partial, and there was a good deal of rearrangement of the various sections. Further, Waley took a good many liberties with the text itself. In this regard, it is probably not inappropriate to compare Waley’s version with Edward FitzGerald’s rendering of the Ruba’iyyat of Omar. FitzGerald, as has frequently been noted, played fast and loose with the Persian manuscript he used; only about half of his rubu i are actually more or less accurate renderings, and some can be traced to no known original. The rest are patchwork. Now in the interests of poetic excellence, Fitzgerald made a number of distinct translations, four of which were published. It might be thought that the comparison breaks down at this point, since Genji is a novel, not a poem. However, as in most Japanese novels, poetry plays an integral role in the text, and Waley was a highly competent translator of both Chinese and Japanese verse, witness his No Plays of Japan and The Book of Songs among others. Granted that his phrasing is a bit old-fashioned, his language is consistent and has its own dramatic quality.

Mr. Seidensticker criticizes Waley’s choice of certain sections for inclusion and for omission. Certainly such comments are appropriate, even though one may disagree in matters of detail. Since Mr, Seidensticker is doing the entire work into English (and it runs to well over a thousand pages), no corresponding criticism has any application here. Yet it is curious that Mr. Seidensticker appears to neglect what might be thought of as the strongest argument in favor of a new translation. When Arthur Waley began his work on the Genji Monogatari, very few persons in England and America knew anything significant about Japanese history, literature, art, or customs, The long passages in the Japanese text, if literally rendered into English, would have been meaningless. One would ask: What is this conversation all about? The answer would be that, as far as a Westerner was concerned, it isn’t about anything. The point of the interchange was that of determining the relative social status of the participants. Today it is unnecessary to adopt Waley’s subterfuge of simply making up a conversation which, though it had little if any relation to the Japanese text, would sustain the reader’s interest. Again, numerous references in the early chapters are to Po Ch?-i’s The Song of Unending Sorrow (Ch’ang Hen Ko). Nowadays, almost any educated reader in the West knows the story of Yang Kuei-fei and will understand the relevance of this poem to the situation depicted by Lady Murasaki, The appreciation of oriental cultures in the West has increased enormously since Waley began his work on the Genji Monogatari almost 50 years ago; and the present translation takes advantage of this fact. The footnotes are relatively few, terse, and to the point.

A vastly more sophisticated audience, then, greets the publication of this two-volume edition, and it will not be disappointed. I found myself swept along—in spite of a long-standing predeliction for Waley’s characteristic forms of expression—by the ebb and flow of Mr. Seidensticker’s elegant, lean sentences. There is hardly an unessential adjective, and I have admired his manner of writing ever since his translation of Kawabata Yasunari’s Thousand Cranes appeared some 20 years ago. And I very much applaud the plan of illustration that has been adopted; the woodcuts are from an edition of 1650, and they do illustrate the text in an unobtrusive way. Chapter II, “The Broom Tree,” is still my favorite chapter. It involves a complex metaphor of light and shade which Mr. Seidensticker has most successfully rendered. As an old Waley-fan, I was prejudiced against this translation before I began to read. This prejudice has now been removed.


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