I haven't seen Dennis Washburn's new translation of the Genji Monogatari, but here's something from Ian Buruma's review upon the reading of which I was like whoa:

Washburn’s efforts at clarity can sometimes be jarring, too, especially in passages having to do with sexual attraction and seduction. [...] [Genji] ends up more or less kidnapping Murasaki and sets her up as a wife-to-be in a private residence, where she plays with her dolls, even as the Shining Prince treats her with a rather scandalous degree of intimacy. It sometimes puzzled her female attendants, in Seidensticker’s crisp words, "that she should still be such a child. It did not occur to them that she was in fact not yet a wife." Washburn renders the same passage as follows: "The people who served at Genji’s mansion had found her childish behavior, which could be quite pronounced at times, awkward and inappropriate, and yet they had no idea that she was in fact a wife in name only, for Genji had not yet had sex with her even though they slept together."

Here's how the passage appears in Ikeda's Genji Monogatari Taisei (I.244-245):


(Ikeda doesn't list any textual variants worth noting here.)

So the part corresponding to "had not yet had sex with her" is yodukanu (よつかぬ above), a negative form of the verb yoduku 世付く. Can this really support such a bald translation?

Well, yes and no. The base meaning of the verb is something like "be or act according to the commonly understood ways of the world," but there was a well understood set of secondary meanings along the lines of "behave like a couple is expected to." Since this is being paired with the actual sleeping together (that's the そひふし part - sohibusi 添い臥し), I think it's quite reasonable to interpret a lack of sex as the phenomenon that is being alluded to here.

And yet — it feels a bit, well, un-Genji-like, doesn't it? A little too frank. The whole reason Heian literature used turns of phrase like yoduku was because that sort of cryptic allusiveness was prized, while flat description was scorned. The Genji Monogatari is notorious for its vagueness, leading pretty much all translators (I think -- maybe not Tyler?) to add dialog tags identifying speakers and so on. I don't think many readers would object to that. But what about ambiguities and haziness that the author included on purpose?

It sounds like Washburn's translation will be the clearest and easiest to follow yet. The question I guess is what has been sacrificed to achieve that clarity, and whether it was worth it.

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That"s the kind of clarification I very much welcome-in footnotes. My Manyōshū will have a LOT of footnotes.


Washburn's translation of that specific passage reads more like a detailed summary of the book than the actual authorial aesthetic.


On the other hand, since I'm packing it in my suitcase today, here's the Tyler:

'The household staff were taken aback whenever she turned out still to be a child, but they never imagined how innocently the two were sleeping together.' (139)

This has a directness that Seidensticker does not suggest, and yet my consistent impression is that Tyler is very careful with aesthetic and literal accuracy, so maybe this puts Washburn into the realm of possible translations.

Still, I'm not compelled to run out and buy Washburn's translation; we already have two excellent translations of the Genji, and one acceptable one.


@Avery now that you mention it, the tone of Washburn's translation reminds of gendaigoyaku (which exist halfway between translations and explanations). But gendaigoyaku are accessory, designed to help reading the original.


I think Seidensticker looks more indirect because (for some reason) he apparently leaves out the 添ひ臥し part -- the actual, literal, sleeping together. If it were something like "It did not occur to them that although they were sleeping together she was not yet a wife" it would feel a bit more like Tyler's.

(I would say that Seidensticker probably comes closest to etymologico-literal faithfulness with the coy "not a wife" thing, although of course this sort of faithfulness isn't necessarily the measure by which a translation should be judged.)


I guess part of it is the need to distinguish his own from previous translations, but Leo seems spot on to me with the whiff of gendaigoyaku.

Adding to your point about the unGenjiness of it, the very phrase "have sex" seems to encode a specific history of thinking about the act that really seems out of place to me. It's the sort of thing it's not fair to demand perfect sensitivity to, but more sensitivity than this seems reasonable, no?


I dunno -- the translation is for modern English-speakers, not Heian Japanese-speakers who prized cryptic allusiveness; of course you don't want to turn it into Hemingway, but I don't think "Well, that's not very Heian" is a particularly helpful form of criticism. The question should be "Will this help the modern reader understand what's going on?" and in this case the answer is yes -- certainly as opposed to "she was in fact not yet a wife." (Sheesh.) Now, maybe "had sex" is a little too blunt, but I don't think the general idea of making coded references plainer is objectionable.


I'd actually be more interested in reading the Ernest "Iceberg Theory" Hemingway’s Genji Monogatari over the "not yet had sex with her even though" version. How could it possibly it go? "Too often, the girl acted like one. The servants thought her childish. There was something they didn't know. The girl had been sleeping with him, but not /sleeping/ with him. Not yet.”


Maybe "un-Heian" has to be unpacked as shorthand for "not reflecting the diction here or elsewhere as observed in Heian court literature." He opted to rephrase, which is fine, and often necessary in a tight spot. But this isn't really very tight at all, as Tyler's "they never imagined how innocently the two were sleeping together" makes clear, all while following the original quite closely. Hard to see the need. Cf. cases that really are too allusive to make the gap, like pregnancy, which is usually referred to obliquely by euphemisms of unwellness.


I mean, you say "sheesh" and I probably would roll my eyes at that in a contemporary novel, but if we're reading Genji, presumably we want to get a feel for what it was like to live in that world, not just watch the plot unfold (because, spoiler alert, the plot and characterization alone does not justify 1000+ pages.) Given that so much of the novel is devoted to Genji's amorous relations and how they are talked about/reacted to/etc. I think this is an area where it's worth trying to recreate the rhetorical patterns and not just the propositions behind them. Like Azuma said, "had sex" is too modern for my tastes.

A whole Hemingway Genji would be a fun read. "Whose reign? Don't know. She outshone all the other maids..."


This is a tangent, but I found the Ukifune chapters on par with Dostoyevsky, so I think those characterizations are worth reading in any format possible. But I agree that the first two-thirds of the book is far more interesting for its aesthetic than its plot, and some of the astonishment upon reading the Ukifune chapters is their incredible contrast. (That's why everyone should read the Tyler!)

I assume this is why it's often been suggested that the book has multiple authors. But the whole thing has the feel of single authorship to me, if you read it thinking that the author is constantly and tirelessly seeking out the deepest romantic aesthetic; it is as if she discovers something new as she keeps writing.


"Given that so much of the novel is devoted to Genji's amorous relations and how they are talked about/reacted to/etc. I think this is an area where it's worth trying to recreate the rhetorical patterns and not just the propositions behind them."

OK, that's fair enough. I still haven't gotten around to Genji, alas (though I've had both the Waley and Seidensticker translations on my shelves for many years now).


You'd better finish up that Russian literature project and get started on Genji soon, then - you"re two full translations behind now!


Well, I added the new translation to the Wikipedia article, so I consider I've done my duty by Genji for the time being.

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