The Botany of Genji

1 Jul

Flowers and plants abound in this tale, and while some of them are familiar (as a resident of Washington, DC, I’ve seen more than my fair share of cherry blossoms), I have no readily available mental image of many others. Wisteria I know, but what does a gillyflower look like? Or a safflower? A twilight beauty? Heart-to-heart? A murasaki flower?

Seeing these plants adds a special poignancy or humor to Genji’s decision to refer to them in his poems to or about certain characters. The safflower, which gives Suetsuhama her name, is spiny, prickly, and often bright red – reflecting how her old-fashioned, formal manners rub Genji’s modern suavité the wrong way, as does her unfortunate, red-tipped schnoz (One problem with pursuing love affairs in the dark – you can’t be sure what the light of day will reveal). Twilight beauties, as it turns out, wither after a single night’s blooming; while murasaki flowers are small and white (it’s their roots that are purple, and beget the dye – this is clearly mentioned in the book, but it’s easy to forget). I’ve been reading ahead, and spent nearly the whole book thinking kerria roses – often mentioned in the tale’s landscape descriptions or in reference to clothing – were a blush pink, in accordance with the western idea of a rose-color. Turns out they’re bright yellow.

My research also clued me into the fact that the names of plants may pose a thorny (rimshot, please) question of translation. For example, due to common root words, heart-to-heart is often mistranslated as hollyhock, even though the two plants have about as much in common as a baobab tree has with a butterfly bush. Further, the sheer passage of time may change the referents of words — I found one gardening forum all in a tizzy as to whether the twilight beauties could really be moonflowers, as they were unsure as to whether moonflowers had yet reached Heian-era Japan. I also happened upon grad students puzzling over whether asagao really means bluebell, or whether it could also refer to morning glories. Mysteries abound.

Knowing that Mr. Tyler has been kind enough to join in some of the discussions going on in the comment box, I wonder if he can shed some light on these controversies. I have attempted a few translations in my time, and have found myself dog-tired simply from doing battle with modern slang. My little foray into plant-lore has impressed me with how all-encompassing this story is in its reflection of its culture — it simply leaves nothing out, from proper landscaping design to the type of hat a dancer wears to commentaries on what good and bad cliches in poetry might be. To translate it means to master a little – or a lot – of all these things. I am happy to have so thorough a guide.


9 Responses to “The Botany of Genji”

  1. Royall Tyler July 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

    These plants and flowers are very tricky to name in translation (although items of clothing are worse), and many of my solutions are compromises. A famous example is that of the plant HAGI. I didn’t translate this name because the standard translation for it, given in the dictionaries, is “bush clover.” Unfortunately, in English there is no such plant.

    “Gillyflower” and “pink” seem to be the same flower. This was a wonderful discovery, because, in the original, TOKONATSU and NADESHIKO are the same flower, so I needed two different words for the same thing.

    The safflower, which has red-tipped (like Suetsumuhana’s nose) flower buds, yields a red dye. None of the plant’s other characteristics has anything to do with Suetsumuhana’s traits.

    I hit on “twilight beauty” not as a botanically accurate translation, but as a translation that answers (I hope) the requirements of the poems and context of the chapter. “Moonflower” is right, I believe.

    As for “heart-to-heart,” several totally different Japanese plants are called AOI. I learned which AOI this is from various authoritative sources and saw the plant growing in a Kyoto garden. But there was no English for it. I hope this translation reflects both the form of the plant and its role in the Tale. As I must have explained in a note, the name (spelled in A-FU-HI in old Japanese) makes a word play on AFU HI, “day of [lovers’] meeting.”

    As genjimaureen notes, the white flower of the MURASAKI plant is not the issue here. The plant’s roots yield a purple dye. (Because of climate change, good-quality murasaki roots no longer grow in Japan. Dyers who use them have to import them from Mongolia.)

    “Kerria rose” (for YAMABUKI) is a very unsatisfactory translation, I think, but what to do? The dictionaries give it. Here in Australia we have “banksia roses,” totally unrelated to either roses or yamabuki)–pretty hopeless, too.

    As to whether ASAGAO really means “bluebell,” no, it doesn’t. It means (as I took it) a flower called in modern Japanese KIKYO. A kikyo isn’t a bluebell, but its flowers are blue and bell-shaped. Best I could do. I took ASAGAO as meaning kikyo (rather than “morning glory”) on the authority of a genius Japanese scholar of his country’s classical poetry and also a dedicated gardener. He said that although the long debate on the subject will remain forever unresolved, evidence suggests that, in the time of the Tale, Japan did not have blue morning glories. The kikyo, he felt, is the most likely candidate otherwise.

    • Madi December 14, 2014 at 2:58 am #

      Hi Mr. Tyler,
      I’m not sure if you’ll see this, but could you shed some light on which flower represents the Akashi Lady for me? I’m doing a project for class in which we read your translation of Genji and I’m still baffled–is she a chrysanthemum?
      Thank you so much!

  2. Louis July 1, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    Asagao are definitely morning glories – and as the name maens ‘morning face’ I’d say it’s pretty important to translate it as morning glory.

  3. samsacks9 July 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Boy, what a fantastic idea–a Tale of Genji Field Guide. I’d love to have this book.

  4. Maureen July 3, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    If I had an actual yard (alas, I am an apartment-dweller), I think you could come up with a pretty attractive Genji Garden. Wisteria, cherry blossoms, plum blossoms…what’s not to like?

  5. lisa peet July 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Hmm, that would be a great idea for the New York Botanical Garden. They already have an exchange program with the cultural powers that be in Japan for their annual chrysanthemum festival — I went last fall and it was really something.

  6. Dee Brown July 5, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    Thanks so much for the flower info. There is a keria in my backyard. They are very hardy and will flower with not too much sun for about 2-3 weeks in the spring. The flower imagery adds a lot to the very transitory nature of things which seems to be a theme in Genji. Things on the edge of demise seem to be the most beautiful i.e. Aoi dying seemed more beautiful to Genji than when she was well. Affairs bloom and wither, people come and go and live and die all in a sudden burst in this section. It was kind of a relief when he went into exile and the pace slowed up.

  7. Dee Brown July 6, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    On the botany note, having reached chapter 15, wormwood ran a bell. In Chinese herbal medicine it is called qing hao and in Japanese seiko. It grows fast and voraciously. Some might decide it is a weed. It is used to clear heat or what we would call inflammation especially summer heat, and that caused by parasites. It was also used to quell malarial fevers. There is the belief system in the book that people become possessed by malign spirits and can perish fairly quickly. Parasites or “gu” as they are called in Chinese medicine can bring on many physical and mental disorders, and later on when herbal medicine became more refined, the spirit possession belief was replaced to some degree by microbe, like parasite, infestation. Wormwood is called so because of its ability to get rid of worms. Its an interesting choice to have the safflower princess’ home over run with wormwood.

  8. Maureen July 7, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Thank you, Mr. Tyler — I am especially pleased to learn about the translation of asagao; I suspected that there might be evidence that, while the word is currently used to refer only to morning glories, it referred to a different kind of flower entirely in the 10th century.

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