Of whom the reader knows nothing

8 Aug

Although every new chapter makes it clearer that we’ve picked the right translator for our Summer of Genji (I keep alternating between noticing the herculean work Royall Tyler put into his version and noticing the arresting, often otherworldly beauty of the results), massive and pivotal chapters like “Spring Shoots” I & II naturally tempt the thoughts to wander down roads not taken. The temptation grows even stronger since Tuttle Publishing has recently re-issued Arthur Waley’s groundbreaking 1921-1933 Genji translation in a very solid, very pretty fat paperback. Translating this bewilderingly subtle and complex book for an English language audience is a forbidding task, and Waley was the first to come anywhere close to a complete edition – these are reasons to esteem his work, regardless of the work of others.

The charge most often leveled against Waley is that he pruned as he went along, and it’s impossible to deny. Defending him is another matter: no doubt his intentions were good – this was a huge and alien work to his 1930s audience, after all, and at every turn in the book you can see him always making the readerly decision, always taking the narrative down smooth pathways with manicured lawns. Murasaki Shikibu rather exuberantly doesn’t do that, and Royall Tyler has chosen to echo her odd narrative ways as closely as possible. The result is assuredly greater translation fidelity – but let’s be honest here: when characters from six chapters ago are being identified only by their epithets or imperial titles, when everybody’s being identified that way for long stretches at a time, it’s exceedingly easy to lose your way.

Take “Spring Shoots I” for example: His Eminence Suzaka is planning on retiring from the world of court and devoting what he’s sure will be the last days of his life to monastic contemplation in the quiet severity of a hillside retreat (perhaps not entirely severe, since he’s having it custom-built for his arrival, but again, we’re talking about good intentions). He decides to go out with a great New Year’s party, to which all the highest nobles of the land are invited – including, as Tyler dutifully translates, “Their Excellencies of the Left and Right.” To which he appends the footnote: “Of whom the reader knows nothing.”

Which might be well and good for him to clarify, but from a reader’s standpoint, it’s easy to see why Waley decided to omit the reference completely, rather than retain it and add a footnote: those almost anonymous Excellencies have no bearing on anything whatsoever, and although the import of their titles is lost on the reader, the presence of those titles adds just that little bit more to the title-fatigue that can sometimes afflict Tyler’s translation. Waley took them out, almost certainly because he saw that leaving them in added nothing to the scene – a philistine’s decision, perhaps, but one for which a weary reader might thank him.

But the danger in such solicitude is that it can be carried too far, and here’s where Waley’s real guilt comes in. In his translation, events move right on to His Eminence taking the tonsure in preparation for his departure from the world, and it’s only when we read Tyler’s version that we see this is an economy too far: there’s a pretty little moment Waley excises.

The Empress has sent Suzaku a poignant gift: a comb-set he had once given her, when she, too, was embarking on a new life (in her case, in service to the Emperor Reizei) – the gift catches the attentive reader’s breath, for we have seen that earlier moment and can’t help but feel touched now. The quiet delicacy of the moment is so noticeable that Waley must have seen it, and the reader wonders why he left it out – until the comb-set’s box is opened and the inevitable poem is found within. His Eminence is pleased and sends a brief poem in response – two hopeful little notes sounded in the midst of the chapter’s rather somber concerns, a wonderful little exchange between two characters, but Waley almost certainly left it out because of the poems themselves. There’s not a stitch of verse in the Waley Genji, and perhaps it’s Tyler’s footnote that explains why: “The language of the poem, as of Suzaku’s reply,” he tells us, “is distinctly felicitous.”

He has to tell us this because he can’t show us: his own rendition of the verses in question, though pleasant enough, is not ‘distinctly felicitous’ (hence the need to tell us at all) – and perhaps, given Murasaki Shikibu’s prowess, no English translation could be. Certainly in this case Waley must have thought so, and rather than hamstring the pretty little moment by failing to do full justice to the poetry at its center, he chose to leave the whole thing out.

Ultimately, this is Tyler’s greatest strength as a translator: he’s willing to expose his readers not just to the full beauty of Genji but to its full risks as well. His translation is less courtly than that of Waley (who succeeded admirably in turning The Tale of Genji into a traditional English ‘triple-decker’ novel and well deserves his sterling new edition on that score alone), but it trades a measure of tranquility for the thrill of the real, as its hero so often does.

–Steve Donoghue


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