Top critical review
329 people found this helpful
The Waley Version is Still the One to Read
on August 31, 2004
Having loved both the Arthur Waley and Edward Seidensticker versions of The Tale of Genji as well as the bits and pieces of Murasaki Shikibu's classical Japanese I had hammered through as a graduate student in East Asian studies, I was thrilled to hear that someone had done a "stunning" new translation of this work I and so many other Genji fans regard as one of the greatest "novels" ever written. Fortunately, a friend of mine, who is also a Genji fan, had the foresight to forward me some random passages of the Tyler version before I actually shelled out any money. In comparing these quotes to the Waley and Seidensticker versions I was much surprised to find that the Tyler translation comes up short in almost every regard, and that even Seidensticker's version, engaging as it is, is somewhat disappointing. Compare their respective translations of this short passage from a scene in Chapter Five ("Murasaki"), where Genji is visiting a Buddhist monastery in the mountains:
Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall--audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.
Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.
Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.
There is no doubt Waley embellished the text, but it was clearly in the interest of conveying a sense of the exquisite poetry of Murasaki's prose. His elevated diction lends just that touch of "class" we would expect to find in an author writing for an aristocratic audience for whom style was everything. Moreover, the sumptuous musicality of his phrasing continually underscores the melancholy atmosphere even as it seems to echo the sound of the waterfall and the chanting. Seidensticker's version has the virtue of concision, but his choice of words is often questionable: "reading," for example, suggests that Buddhist monks read the sutras in private meditation rather than chanted them as a group prayer. His "sacred texts," on the other hand, implies that Genji wasn't very familiar with Buddhism, which could hardly be further from the truth. It was as central to his life and worldview as Catholicism was to the Italian princes of the Middle Ages, as Waley's "scriptures" implies. The phrase "aroused by the scene" is even more ill-chosen, for it suggests that Genji found visits to mountain temples erotically stimulating, when in fact they tended to have the opposite effect, for they reminded him of the vanity of his secular pursuits, which were, by and large, erotic.
Tyler's version follows Waley's interpretation at this point and thus avoids these particular problems, but he has others that are even worse. His "a cold mountain wind had set in to blow," for example, is dreadfully clumsy and somewhat confusing, as is his "the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before". The latter illogically suggests that it was the increased height of the pool below the waterfall that made the roar louder rather than the increase in the volume of water flowing over the falls due to the rain that had passed. A good many phrases in the other passages I sampled from the Tyler volume had similar kinds of problems, which makes me wonder if Tyler's editors ever bothered to read the work they insist is so "stunning." If any version deserves that praise it is Waley's, which may be difficult to find, but it is well worth the effort.