Japanese Literature Challenge 10, a tale of four translations, and a question

Hello, lovely readers,

Japanese Literature Challenge is hosted by Dolce Bellezza since 2006. The event traditionally runs from June through January, and there is only one requirement: to read at least one work of Japanese literature in this six month period. Here you can find a suggested reading list.

After I am done with my #20BooksofSummer, I intend to devote the dark and cold and ever disheartening following months to The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. However, I have a question for you, dear Japanese Literature readers: which translation do you recommend?

Apparently, there are four translations available:

  • Dennis Washburn’s (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 1360 p., Goodreads);
  • Royall Tyler’s (Penguin Classics, 2003, 1182 p., Goodreads);
  • Arthur Waley’s (Tuttle Publishing, 2010, 1155 p., Goodreads);
  • Edward Seidensticker’s (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, 1224 p., Goodreads).

Ian Buruma recently compared  the different translation  styles in The New Yorker:

The two most famous English translations of “Genji”—Arthur Waley’s, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and Edward Seidensticker’s, in 1976—could hardly be more different. Waley regarded gorgeous prose as more important than accuracy. When he found a passage, or even a whole chapter, too boring or obscure, he just skipped it. He compensated for the vagueness of the original Japanese by making up something equally lyrical in Bloomsbury-period English.

Seidensticker, in “Genji Days,” the diary he kept while translating the book, admits that Waley might have been right to cut certain passages but resolved not to do so himself. And, no doubt as a reaction to Waley’s flowery prose, he stripped away a lot of the ornament to arrive at a more modern text that conveys its meaning with far greater accuracy and concision. But, as a result, the beauty of Murasaki’s long, flowing sentences is lost. Royall Tyler, in 2001, tried to strike a happy medium. Washburn is so eager to throw light on even the murkiest bits that he makes absolutely explicit what is only hinted at in the original.


One can see why many admirers of “Genji” prefer Waley. Seidensticker can sound too cut-and-dried, while Washburn errs on the side of wordiness.


Perhaps Washburn comes closest to what is really meant. Yet Seidensticker and Tyler seem to be closer in spirit to the original text. Washburn’s scholarship is certainly profound, and he tells us a great deal more in his footnotes than Seidensticker does. But in the actual text he explains a little too much. And despite his claims that he tried to “replicate the general rhythms” of Murasaki’s prose style, too many words and phrases, such as “mind-set,” “scenarios,” and “enough already,” take us too far away from Genji’s time.

I am at a loss here. Have you read any of these translations? What do you think about them? Which one do you recommend?

Thank you in advance for your help. And happy Japanese reading, everyone! 🙂

Yours truly,


Katsushika Hokusai. Pair of sissors and sparrow. s/d. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Katsushika Hokusai. Pair of sissors and sparrow. s/d. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Japanese Literature Challenge 10, a tale of four translations, and a question

  1. I personally prefer the Seidensticker translation. I read a sample from the different translations and just decided that Seidensticker felt better. Nothing more scientific than that! I hope you enjoy it. It’s a looooong book, and it goes a bit off-beam for a couple of chapters in the middle, but it is overall a very enjoyable reading experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Man, I’m struggling with the same thing! I’ve been wanting to pick up this book up for a while but haven’t quite made up my mind in the choice of translation. I don’t like Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country (haven’t read the whole thing, could be I just don’t like Kawabata’s writing but it feels more like the translation’s fault) so I’m leaning towards either Washburn or Tyler, more so to the latter but it’s so difficult to find a copy. Interesting to see your thoughts later! 🙂


    1. Now that you speak of it, I remember I also found Snow Country rather strange… So it was translated by Seidensticker! Everyone keeps saying his version of Genji is supposed to be the most ‘literary’, though – whatever that means. On the other hand, both Washburn’s and Tyler’s versions were very well recommended to me by Kat over at Mirabile Dictu (https://mirabiledictu.org). I think I will buy the Washburn translation and borrow the Seidensticker from my library, to be able to compare. If you ever fancy a Genji readalong, just let me know. 🙂 Thank you for coming by!


      1. For some reason, I just couldn’t get on with it. But then again, the time periods of the two books differ greatly so it might be that Seidensticker is better with ancient texts.
        I think I’m leaning towards Washburn too! Sounds like fun, doing a Genji readalong. When are you planning on reading it? 🙂


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