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The Tale of Genji


Tale of Genji1960 Modern Library edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form
Prose narrative


Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 527,000 words

Notable lines
First line

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

trans. Seidensticker

Great lines

Such a difficult, constricted life as a woman was required to live! Moving things, amusing things, she must pretend to be unaffected by them. With whom was she to share the pleasure and beguile the tedium of this fleeting world? Like the mute prince who was always appearing in sad parables, a woman should be sensitive but silent.

Autumn is no time to lie alone.

trans. Seidensticker

Last line

It would seem that, as he examined the several possibilities, a suspicion crossed his mind: the memory of how he had behaved in earlier days made him ask whether someone might be hiding her from the world.

trans. Seidensticker

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



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The Tale of Genji

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