The Tale of Genji
Prose narrative, c.1020
approx. 527,000 words
1,506 pages @350 wds/pg

Translations compared

First lines in four English translations:

Suematsu [SHOW] [HIDE]

In the reign of a certain Emperor, whose name is unknown, there was, among the Niogo and the Koyi of the Imperial Court, one who, though she was not of high birth, enjoyed teh full tide of Roayl favor.

Waley [SHOW] [HIDE]

At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favored far beyond all the rest.

Seidensticker [SHOW] [HIDE]

In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others.

Tyler [SHOW] [HIDE]

In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.

COMMENTARY | TRANSLATIONS

The ancient Japanese mind

The earliest known translation of The Tale of Genji into English was likely by Japanese writer and political figure Suematsu Kencho (1882). But his Genji is abridged to about a quarter the length of the original and is not highly regarded.

Arthur Waley may have been the first Westerner to read the entire Tale of Genji in Japanese. His translation of almost the whole work into English in 1933 is considered the most fanciful, adding twentieth-century expressions to the original story to make it readable and enjoyable to a modern audience. It's been complained however that he turns Genji into an Edwardian gentleman.

Edward Seidensticker's 1976 translation of the entire work is more faithful to the original text. In the style of the original work, it is more dryly ironic, leaving much unsaid. Until recently this translation was considered the most authoritative, presenting an accurate impression of medieval Japanese culture that is still highly readable by an English-speaking audience, although it tends to leave characters' motivations inscrutable at times to the Western reader.

The recent Royall Tyler translation (2001) has been lauded for presenting the most exacting translation yet, as well as copious notes to help the Western reader through the story, although he follows the old Japanese tradition of identifying characters by title or position, rather than by name, making it difficult to know who is speaking at any particular time. Seidensticker usually puts in the familiar name wherever it is known.

The translators also differ in how they handle the hundreds of short waka poems scattered throughout The Tale of Genji. Waley incorporates them into the prose text. Seidensticker translates them into couplets, often in the iambic pentameter form that English readers are used to from classical British poets. Tyler also presents them in couplets but retains the more complex meter and division into syllable groups that characterize the original poems in Japanese.

You may also find abridged editions of the Waley and Seidensticker editions, along with a full translation by Helen Craig McCullough (1994).

— Eric

COMMENTARY | TRANSLATIONS

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The Tale of Genji, trans. Seidensticker
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Related pages:

Author
Murasaki Shikibu

Prose narrative
The Tale of Genji

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The Tale of Genji, trans. Tyler
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missing graphic
The Tale of Genji, trans. Seidensticker
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