Which translation of the Tale of Genji should I read?

If you have never read The Tale of Genji, my advice is, DON’T START WITH TYLER. That’s what I did: I started with Tyler. That was a mistake.

What’s wrong with Royal Tyler’s Tale of Genji?

I did a bit of reading online when trying to choose which translation to read for the Hungry Hundred Book Club meetup in January. According to Wikipedia, Tyler has the most explanatory notes and is the most faithful in terms of style. Sounds good, right?

Welp, I slogged through half the Tyler translation in a kind of fog reminiscent of how I felt when I read Kafka’s Trial.

The problem is that Tyler’s translation refers to characters by title. There are multiple people referred to as “Her Highness”, for example, and you have to pay close attention to know which one is being referred to in any given case. Also, people’s titles change. For a while, Genji is called “the Commander”. Fine. But then later he gets a promotion and a different title. And later someone else is referred to by that title. You never realize how handy names are in fiction until nobody has one.

Maybe if you’re really good at keeping track of networks of people in your head, it won’t be difficult for you, but it was for me, even with a character list at the beginning of each chapter! I gave up and switched to Seidensticker after I happily discovered a paperback copy on the shelf in a local bookshop.

Seidensticker like, actually, refers to characters using recognizable names! Unlike Tyler! And unlike the original author! Whose name we don’t even know because people in Heian Japan didn’t really use personal names!

I’m reminded of the punchline of my absolute favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Calvin: I like to verb words.
Hobbes: What?
Calvin: I take nouns and adjective and use them as verbs. remember when “access” was a thing? Now it’s something you do. It got verbed.
Calvin: Verbing weirds language.
Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

We can legitimately ask, How hard should readers have to work to understand a text? Some readers prefer more authenticity and some prefer more accessibility—though possibly a translation could have a high degree of both.

Personally, I found Seidensticker’s level of compromise between these two goals to be more suitable than Tyler’s for a first reading.

Translations of The Tale of Genji

I count four unabridged translations of six total, listed here:

# Translator Year Originally Published
Original Publisher
Suematsu Kencho 1882 Trübner
1. Arthur Waley 1925–1933 Allen and Unwin
2. Edward G. Seidensticker 1976 Knopf
Helen Craig McCullough 1994 Stanford University Press
3. Royall Tyler 2001 Viking
4. Dennis Washburn 2015 Norton

Suematsu’s translation is partial, containing only a few chapters. McCullough’s is an abridgement. (Seidensticker and Tyler have published abridgements as well as complete translations.)

For more on the different available translations and editions (and related resources), visit my post “Which English translation of the Tale of Genji should I read?” at my other website, We Love Translations.

How to (t)read in my footsteps

I did actually finish both translations, Tyler and Seidensticker. They’re both good, but reading them in the opposite order would have been better.

The version I started reading first was the Tyler translation published by Penguin as a Kindle ebook. If nothing else, it has the advantage of being instantly available to anybody who has a Kindle (or a smartphone with the Kindle app). The explanatory notes are good, but I found them annoying to open and dismiss and would have preferred making use of them in a paperback. Also, be aware that there’s quite a lot of stuff at the back after the (rather abrupt) end of the novel which is useful as you read, and it starts when you are at only 78%!

Buy Tyler Genji ebook from Amazon

The second version I started reading was the Seidensticker translation published by Tuttle as a two-volume slipcase paperback set. I spotted it in a couple of bookshops here in Singapore, but it doesn’t seem to be quite so available in the US. Here’s a link to what I believe is a hardcover copy of the translation I prefer.

Buy Seidensticker Genji hardcover from Amazon

Tyler illustrations vs. Seidensticker illustrations

The Tyler illustrations show typical period objects and processes that are mentioned in the story, but the illustrations do not seem to be specific to the story. They’re informative, but intrusive… I don’t want to feel like I’m reading an encyclopedia while I’m reading a novel.
I like these illustrations, and although it would make a long book even longer, I think I’d like them to be bigger. And I’d definitely like more space between the text and the footnotes. Ah well.