The fan

There is a rather famous bit near the start of the "Yūgao" chapter of the Tale of Genji where Genji is so moved by the sight of a flower growing on a poor person's fence ("How lamentable a fate for a flower!", 口惜しきの花の契りや) that he orders one of his attendants to go and pick a bunch for him. A servant then emerges from the house and gives Genji's attendant a fan to put them on. I just noticed the other day that all three four major English translations of the chapter translate the servant's words differently.

Original: kore ni okite mairaseyo, eda mo nasake nage nanmeru hana o
Suematsu: Let us put them on this, those with strong stems.
Waley: Would you like something to put them on? I am afraid you have chosen a wretched-looking bunch.
Seidensticker: Put it on this. It isn't much of a fan, but then it isn't much of a flower either.
Tyler: Here, give them to him on this — their stems are so hopeless.

This is a great little illustration of the character of the three four translations. Suematsu, totally off in the weeds ("Let us...", "strong stems"); Waley, master of polite reserve ("Would you like...?", "I am afraid...") and either a little bit wrong or a little bit misjudged ("wretched-looking bunch"); Seidensticker, gunning for the Hemingway Memorial Prize and also wrong (the whole second sentence); and Tyler, correct in the detail and pleasantly casual.

(There's lots of room for argument about meaning, of course, but no less an authority than Motoori Norinaga points out that the flower in question grows on a vine, making it hard to just carry loose; the servant also specifies the stem/branch [eda] as the problem, and this is not a common synecdoche or anything like that. So on the whole I am inclined to agree with Tyler and Motoori.)

I would be remiss if I failed to note that a few lines later Waley translates the word rōgawashi (crowded, noisy, unpleasant; an early combination of Chinese root [乱, disorder] and Japanese affix) as "hugger-mugger". For the record, Tyler uses "grubby", Seidensticker "not ... very nice" (of course), and Suematsu skips it.

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bonus points to me for remembering that scene even though it's been a couple years since i read that part of that mind numbingly look book!


Though of course now 'hugger mugger' has an entirely different meaning...


I love your characterisation of Seidensticker ("gunning for the Hemingway Memorial Prize"). I've always found Seidensticker overrated.


I dunno if "overrated" is the word I'd use but I do think that the paucity of (good) Japanese-to-English translators in the period he was working in helped obscure the fact that they did, in fact, all have personal styles and a "generational style" on top of that, one that was opposed to fanciness and favored a sort of Carveresque plainness, especially in dialogue. If that made Genji more accessible to more people, great! But it's good to keep in mind that it is, very much, Seidensticker's Genji (or Waley's, or Tyler's), and not <em>the</em> Genji.


Well, I lived through the period when Seidensticker was celebrated by some as a great doyen of Japanese-English translation. When I checked the original of one of his translations I found he had left out words and flattened structures. He also had a penchant for short sentences, turning flowing Japanese prose into a monotonous string of flat-footed sentences that were actually harder to read than long ones. Maybe I'm prejudiced because I lived through it all.


Ha! I love this. I also love to hate on Seidensticker; I could tell his translation of Yukiguni was CRAP. I can't believe he was celebrated in his life as anything special. Just proof that back in the day, all you had to do was be in Japan and producing some form of output to sit back and let the honors roll in.


Time to clean up comments, Matt. I'm going to send this link around to my friends who are about to read the whole book for class!


Thanks for the heads-up! I also changed the error of counting (I guess everyone just assumed it was a sick burn on Suematsu or something).

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