One of the oldest works of literature in the world was written in 11th-century Japan.
The Tale of Genji
is a great Japanese novel, one
far older than the often-cited Don Quixote. Almost exactly a thousand years ago, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court, a woman known to posterity
as Murasaki Shikibu, is said to have written it. Readers began to acknowledge the tale as a classic within a century of its writing, and it soon
became an object of intense study.
The story starts when a woman of lower rank in the court gives birth to a son called Genji. He is favoured by the emperor because he's so beautiful,
talented and likeable. He goes on to have many love affairs, which allows Murasaki Shikibu to explore ideas of love, court politics, friendship, life
and death - all the things that make a wonderful story and an invaluable document of the times. Royall Tyler is a scholar of Japanese language and
literature, a translator and, incidentally, an alpaca farmer. He was born in London, educated in France and the US, and now lives outside Canberra.
For the past decade, he has been working on his beautiful translation of
The Tale of Genji.
Royall Tyler: The Tale of Genji is right up there with the great classics of world literature. Now that I can actually read this language for fun, I'm reading a tale written about 50 years later, in the second half of the 11th century. It's not bad. But looking at The Tale of Genji through that later work, I'm in absolute awe. I cannot understand what genius it must have taken to write The Tale of Genji. It's extraordinary. Nobody came anywhere near it, ever again.
RK: The story is famous for its endless - well, almost endless - series of love affairs. But you say it should be better known for Genii as a man of power in his adult life. Why is it so well known for the other?
RT: This wonderful gallery of love affairs - of all sorts of different flavours, from slapstick comic to really tragic - occurs in Genji's youth, at the beginning of the book. So I think the author is treating you to a wonderful series of pictures of women in relation with the hero. Anyway, he sows a lot of wild oats. The reason these love affairs in the first 11 or 12 chapters (out of 54) leave such an overwhelming impression is that a lot of readers never get any further! And, of course, love affairs capture everyone's attention. Anything erotic is likely to lodge in people's minds. In fact, it isn't at all an endless succession of love affairs. He doesn't have any new ones to speak of after about chapter 12. He becomes a man of power. He completely dominates the court and it's political issues and issues of prestige that preoccupy him from then on.
RK: What do we know about Murasaki Shikibu - which was not her real name - the putative author of The Tale of Genji
RT: We know a little, but not very much. She was probably born in approximately 973. She was the daughter of a provincial governor. There was a class of middle nobles who acted as governors of the various provinces of Japan. At the central court in Kyoto, they were rather low-ranking people, although they looked quite impressive when they were in their provinces. So Murasaki Shikibu belonged to a middle level of the aristocracy which, in the capital, supplied ladies-in-waiting to the greatest lords and ladies around the emperor. She was called to serve as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, Shôshi. Apparently, it was under the patronage of the Empress and her father, the great statesman Fujiwara no Michinaga, that she wrote a lot of the tale, but we don't know how much. Nobody knows just when she began it, or indeed just when it was finished. The only thing we know about the end of her life is that she is not mentioned in a document dated 1014 in which one could expect her to be named if she was still alive. People speculate that she died in 1013 but it isn't clear at all.
RK: What is the evidence that perhaps there was multiple authorship?
RT: This is an extremely controversial point. There is no evidence that she is not the sole author, but there is also no evidence that she is. There is a fragmentary diary of hers, which survives, in which she talks about her patron, the Empress's father, stealing the fair copy of the manuscript from her room to give to one of his daughters. There is also a scene in which she describes a lot of the women of the court getting together to bind the chapters into booklets. Now she never says, "I wrote all this." She also never says exactly what she's talking about, what it consisted of. This is a very long book, so although nobody doubts her involvement, nobody knows how far she had got by the time she wrote that diary entry. The last third of the book is so different in character that I don't believe the same author wrote it. But I can't prove it.
RK: But you smell a rat?
RT: I smell someone else. I hear a different voice. This is a very controversial subject in Japan, where it's assumed - partly for the sake of academic convenience, I think - that Murasaki Shikibu is the sole author. At a more popular level, it's assumed she's the sole author because she's a kind of national heroine. She is the author of the great Japanese classic. There aren't many cultures in which the national classic was written by a woman.
RK: A woman who wrote. Was this unusual in her time? She would have been unusual in Western culture. And yet there are other works like The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, written in Japan at the same time. So, was it unusual?
RT: No, it wasn't by Murasaki Shikibu's time. The official written language at the court was Chinese, even though the courtiers of the time did not speak it. These courtiers - men - studied history, philosophy and religious texts in Chinese, and also wrote poetry in that language. Chinese was their linguistic province, while the women wrote in Japanese. The earliest major work by a woman, an autobiographical memoir, covers the years 954-975. Sei Shonagon was a little older than Murasaki Shikibu, too. However, it's possible that The Tale of Genji is the earliest Japanese novel written by a woman.
RK: Is there any evidence of the original manuscript?
RT: No. Unfortunately, the earliest manuscripts that we have date from about 1200. The text read by everyone today is the one by compiled by a great man of letters, Fujiwara no Teika, in about 1200.
RK: Yours is the third English translation of Genji, which follows work by Arthur Waley in 1933 and by Edward Seidensticker in 1976. But as you say, the job of translation will never be done for good. And there will always be people like you who like to translate, whether the product is needed or not. What was the impulse to translate?
RT: I guess there are two parts to the impulse. One is the wish to perform in your own language a work that moves you or interests you greatly. I like to think of translation as performance, just as a musician might perform a classic work, or an actor might perform a classic play. I think anyone will recognise how different performances of the same play or the same piece of music can be. For someone who has the translation bug, you want to do it yourself. The other impulse is that translation is a very powerful language-learning device. This has been significant in my work as a translator of pre-modern Japanese. The Tale of Genji is incredibly difficult to read. I wanted to know what the original text said, and I knew that I would never really know unless I translated it. Now that I have translated this big book written in 11th-century Japanese, I find that I can actually read other literature like it for fun.
RK: How different is the language of the original Genji from modern Japanese?
RT: It's like Beowulf, compared to modern English. The alphabet used for Beowulf has certain letters that we don't use any more, which is not true of old Japanese, but the differences of grammar and vocabulary are comparable. Eleventh-century Japanese is really a different language.
RK: How did you use the other two English translations? I'm trying to imagine how you would start...
RT: I didn't look at the earliest translation, Arthur Waley's, at all. I did look at Edward Seidensticker's, but it never influenced me. His approach to translation - of this text, anyway - and mine are so different. I was never on his wavelength and he was never on mine. The translation that I did look at, and which was very helpful to me, was a modern Japanese translation that is on the same page as my main edition of the original text. I started out resolved not to look at any translation. But the text is so difficult, and I would notice after translating a passage that I wasn't ending up in what felt like the right place. Id then look at this scholarly, modern Japanese translation and see that I had gone wrong. Needless to say, the editors of the Japanese text were right. I thought I had better keep an eye on 800 years of scholarship and not wing it completely on my own!
RK: Your translation is the first to have upheld the usage of original names and titles. Why was it important for you to do this?
RT: The names and official titles are very difficult to deal with. There are no personal names to speak of. Those who don't have an official title have no designation at all, except something like the Lady of the House. Those who do have official titles are referred to by the title they have at the time. So their designation changes. I decided that I was going to have a go at preserving the usage of the original. At first I didn't realise how important it was. The only thing I knew was that I could do this, because my publisher was allowing me footnotes, so that I could remind the reader, if necessary, who the character was. But I understood as I went on just how important it is to follow this usage. I was able to convey the sense that the writer and her audience had of the importance of official titles, or the discretion that forbade the use of any personal name. In other words, my translation allows the reader to see through the text and to understand how the original readers in 11th-century Japan viewed their own world. It especially conveys their very strong sense of social hierarchy. That's what courtiers in any court - in any country in the world - are concerned with above all.
RK: You also had to think carefully about the model of English that the characters from the court should speak. What were your ideas there?
RT: People sometimes asked me - before I had finished it - whether I was translating into some old form of English, because this is an old book. My answer was always no. First of all, I could not translate Genji into 11th-century English. Second, my only native language is modern English, and I need all the resources I have to do this kind of work properly. I am simply not linguistically equipped to translate The Tale of Genji into some style of English from the past. After all, when The Tale of Genji was written, its language was fresh and new - a literary version of the language people actually spoke. So I think there's a much stronger argument in favour of translating the tale into modern English - a living language - since the original was written in a fully living language. But I still had to choose as best I could the style of English, because we have lots of contemporary Englishes. So I tried to be mid-Atlantic, neither American nor British, and to convey a sense of decorum which courtly language anywhere always has, without being stiff -distinction in language without pomposity.
RK: The Tale of Genji has 795 poems in the 54 chapters of the book. What does one do as translator of these poems, which are so important to the text, and yet probably impossible to translate as poems?
RT: I was convinced at the start that I would never manage to translate these poems in a way that would really work in English, and I didn't want readers to get stuck on them, or trip over them. So I started translating them in a very discreet way which seemed satisfactory at the time. But when I got two-thirds of the way through, I found that I was in such an awful rut that I couldn't stand my own poem translations any more. I finally decided to follow the basic poetic format of the original, which is divided by syllable count. It was only when I had done them all that way that I noticed some of them actually worked. They had something poetic about them after all. They were pleasing and even moving. So I'm proud of what I did with the poems in the end, but the path I took was a tortuous one.
This is an edited version of Ramona Koval's interview with Royall Tyler on Books and Writing, Radio National. Sundays, 7.25pm (repeat Wednesdays, 1pm). The Tale of Genji is published by Penguin.
This page was scanned from the March 2003 issue of "24 Hours", the
Australian Broadcasting Commission's radio programme guide and converted
to HTML. My thanks to Ramona Koval for her kind permission to do this.
The interview was broadcast in January 2003.
Jim Breen - January 2004.