Monday, December 22, 2008

Author? Author!

Now a thousand years old Japan's "The Tale of Genji" may be the first modern novel, and yet ...
It took until the 20th century before a complete English-language version appeared. Arthur Waley, a Cambridge classicist who taught himself Japanese and Chinese, produced the first English translation in six instalments between 1925 and 1933. Waley was much more interested in readability than fidelity. He sped up the plot, cut long descriptive scenes and the occasional entire chapter. He clarified many of the sentences, added psychological background to the characters and westernised the Japanese architecture. The result was a prose masterpiece, though one which modern scholars prefer to call an adaptation rather than a translation.

Lytton Strachey, a neighbour of Waley’s, considered his translation “beautiful in bits”, but the reaction from Japan was much warmer. Even if Waley’s Japanese noblemen sound a little like early-20th-century Cambridge undergraduates, one contemporary Japanese writer famously declared that the Englishman had breathed life into a work that had been tottering around like a headless corpse. Indeed, Waley’s stature in Japan is such that Heibonsha, another publisher, recently released a retranslation of Waley’s “Genji” back into Japanese. “Even in the modern-language versions of ‘Genji’, the majority of Japanese readers don’t make it much past the opening chapters,” explains Takao Hoshina, an editor at Heibonsha. “Waley’s is the most accessible version for us too.”
Casting my bread upon the waters, I float this story back to Sean - connoisseur, curator, theoretician and defender of authorship - on the occasion of the tenth anniversary third edition of his major critical study. (I'm in the acknowledgments don'cha know.)

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