The Virginia Quarterly Review on Japan

Via MetaFilter: The Virginia Quarterly Review has opened its archives going back to 1973. Things that might be of interest to No-sword readers include:

That last review is a real past-is-a-foreign-country eye-opener:

But why a new translation when, in fact, a highly-regarded rendering of this work by the late Arthur Waley is easily available in English? This question is not rhetorical. If one were to list the really brilliant translations of the classics of oriental literature into our language, Waley's The Tale of Genji would certainly rank at or near the top. Most of us who have come to know and appreciate the literature of Japan cut our teeth, so to speak, on this translation [...]

Today, the tooth-cutter books are surely Murakami's (especially Jay Rubin's translations), leading back to Seidensticker's work from the 50s through the 70s on Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and, of course Genji. Waley has become a museum piece (appropriately enough), "surpassed as he imagined himself to be by the technically more proficient young Americans," around whose work a suspicious whiff of Orientalism lingers. But, of course, this is the whole point of reading Waley. [PDF]

Bonus Waley miscellanea

Something from my notebook about one of Waley's Shi Jing ("Book of Songs") translations.

Oh, the flowers of the bignonia,
Gorgeous is their yellow!
The sorrows of my heart,
How they stab!

Oh, the flowers of the bignonia,
And its leaves so thick!
Had I known it would be like this,
Better that I should never have been born!

As often as a ewe has a ram's head,
As often as Orion is in the Pleiads,
Do people to-day, if they find food at all,
Get a chance to eat their fill.

This poem demonstrates the two main qualities that keep Waley's books firmly in my collection:

  1. Entertaining awkwardness. Waley's dangling "it" on line 7 suddenly twists the second and first stanzas into an impassioned tirade against the bignonia itself. I LOL'd.
  2. Bizarre errors inspiring further learning. Waley's lines 9-10 are way off. The original is "牂羊墳首、三星在罶" which means, roughly, "the ewe has a big head, the three stars [Orion's belt, I guess] are in the fish-traps," i.e. the starving ewe's skinny body makes its head look big by comparison, and the fish-traps are so still and undisturbed by fish that they reflect the night sky overhead ("羊瘠則首大也。罶、笱也。罶中無魚而水靜、但見三星之光而已," as the traditional commentary puts it.) But I would never have learned that if his version hadn't been suspicious enough for me to check up on him.

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L.N. Hammer:

I just finished reading Waley's <i>Translations from the Chinese</i>, and was struck by the curious mix of lovely English poetry (sometimes, he's up there with the best in renderings from Chinese I've tested) studded with intermittent clunkers. Made one wonder about the tuning of his ear.


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