electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 6 in 2009
First Published in ejcjs on 30 November 2009

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Arthur Waley

Translator of the Tale of Genji


Rie Kido Askew

Monash University

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About the Author

Sukehiro Hirakawa, Āsā Weirī – Genji monogatari no hon'yakusha (Arthur Waley: The Translator of The Tale of Genji), Tokyo: Hakusuisha, 2008, pp. 1-480, ISBN 978-4560031919.

Of those foreign authors praised for their sympathetic introduction of Japan to the world, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) is probably the best known. One rival, Arthur Waley (1889-1966), remains obscure despite his great literary achievements. Waley translated many works of Japanese and Chinese literature into English, including The Tale of Genji (1925-28) for which Waley is, if remembered at all, often remembered. Sukehiro Hirakawa's Āsā Weirī – Genji monogatari no hon'yakusha (Arthur Waley: The Translator of The Tale of Genji, 2008) is a welcome attempt to shed light on a Japanologist who deserves more serious attention.

Āsā Weirī is the second recent academic monograph on Waley, following John de Gruchy's Orienting Arthur Waley: Japonism, Orientalism and the Creation of Japanese Literature in English (2003). It is the first academic monograph on Waley in the Japanese language. When compared with de Gruchy's book, there is nothing substantially innovative or supplementary in that of Hirakawa. Both are similar semi-biographical literary criticisms. However, that does not make Hirakawa's book less significant. As is always the case with Hirakawa's work, Āsā Weirī is entertaining to read because of his pleasant prose, wide knowledge, and global perspective.

Āsā Weirī was published with perfect timing. Since 2008 commemorates the 1000th anniversary of the completion of The Tale of Genji, not a few readers will be interested in a book on the translator of the beloved story. Like de Gruchy, Hirakawa rejects any attempt to confine Waley's exploits to the aesthetic field of literature. Indeed, both depict Waley as a political figure who struggled against the Orientalism of his age, and both argue that Waley's translation is an expression of his political thought. That is, Waley attempted to persuade English (or English-speaking) readers that The Tale of Genji is, together with other works of Japanese and Chinese literature, worth reading.

Waley's calculation worked. Waley's The Tale of Genji was, in Hirakawa's terms, 'a spectacular hit' (gekishô) (p. 12). There were a large number of book reviews including one by Virginia Woolf (Hirakawa explains that the number of reviews was so large that some remain uncollected). Although Waley's attempt would not be seen as significant today, it was when Waley's Genji first appeared in 1925 when the notion of great Eastern literary works was so alien to the Western imagination. According to Hirakawa, Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935), the noted English Japanologist, was too Eurocentric to appreciate the true worth of Japanese literature, and once noted that '[w]hat Japanese literature most lacks is genius. It lacks thought, logical grasp, [and] depth of pathos'. As for Lady Murasaki (987-1015), the author of Genji, Chamberlin dismissed her as a boring ('ennuyeuse') woman. Hirakawa stresses that Chamberlain, as 'the supreme authority of Japan', both influenced and reflected Western opinion of Japan and Japanese literature (p. 11). Waley's translation is important because it forced Western readers to reconsider Chamberlain's views. This is why Hirakawa calls the publication of Waley's The Tale of Genji 'a historical breakthrough' (rekishiteki kaikyo) (p. 9). According to Hirakawa, it was not just a matter of giving justice to one literary work, but 'a shocking event which challenged Western prejudices against Japanese civilization as a whole (c) Indeed it functioned to present doubts about the Eurocentrism which was at the time widespread and still exists today' (p. 13).

What drove Waley to translate Eastern literature in the first place? De Gruchy attributes Waley's anti-Orientalism to his Jewish identity. Waley was born Arthur Schloss in London with a German-Jewish father, David Frederick Schloss (1859-1912), and an Anglo-Jewish mother, Rachel Sophia Waley (1864-1940). In 1914, he changed his family name to Waley, his mother's maiden name, in order to hide his Jewish identity because of the anti-Semitic mood of the age. According to de Gruchy, being Jewish, Waley always identified himself as an outsider and 'made conscientious identification with victims of imperialism'. Hirakawa too attributes (at least part of) Waley's appreciation of pagan literature to his Jewish identity (p. 111). Yet Hirakawa also mentions the high quality of Waley's early education. Since Waley's parents were eager to provide their children with a good education, they put Arthur in a boarding school where he learned Latin and Greek. After boarding school, Waley then took the typical path of elite students, going to Rugby and King's College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, he first majored in Economics, yet soon switched to Classics, in which he excelled thanks to his early education. In 1910 he graduated from Cambridge and, after working in a business, got a job as a curator in the British Museum in 1913. The first encounter with the East is said to have been in this museum. Here he started his translations of Eastern literature. As Waley himself admits, a basic knowledge of (Western) classics helped him to tackle Eastern classics (p. 32).

What Hirakawa stresses most, however, is Waley's antagonism towards Chamberlain. According to Hirakawa, Waley started his Japanology as an antithesis to Chamberlain. Here Hirakawa creates a rather oversimplified dichotomy of the Orientalist Chamberlain and the anti-Orientalist Waley. Those readers who are familiar with Hirakawa's works will not be surprised to read this. Hirakawa, a leading researcher of Lafcadio Hearn, has always applied this schemata in reading the differences between Chamberlain and Hearn. That is, Chamberlain is depicted as an arrogant Eurocentrist, while Hearn is celebrated as a postcolonial hero. Yet Hirakawa seems to value Waley more than Hearn. He celebrates Waley as 'the best scholar of Oriental studies in the twentieth century' (p. 30), while regrettably notes that even Hearn 'was not aware that there was a rich collection of Japanese classical literature' (p. 96). (Though Hirakawa does not mention it, Waley did not think much of Hearn, either.)

Waley did not limit himself to reversing Chamberlain's opinion of Japanese literature. Waley also undermined Chamberlain's notion that Japanese was too difficult for ordinary Europeans to master. Though Waley had never set foot in Japan, he translated Japanese classics into contemporary English. No doubt many people might attribute Waley's exploits to his exceptional talent in language. However, Hirakawa does not agree with this view. According to Hirakawa, the notion that Japanese is difficult is an ideology that Chamberlain promoted in order to maintain his own superiority as an authority of Japan. That is, Chamberlain brainwashed his (Japanologists) followers so as to keep them under a 'linguistic inferiority complex' (gengoteki rettōkan) (p. 105).

Here one simple question arises – why did Chamberlain translate works of Japanese classics such as The Classical Poetry of the Japanese (1880) and The Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters (1883) if he truly was as arrogant as Hirakawa assumes? Why did he spend so much time and effort on his translations? Was it related to the notion of maintaining his linguistic superiority? Or was there any other political intention? Unfortunately Hirakawa does not answer these questions. Yet it is important to remember that Chamberlain too was a translator. For one other thing, Waley challenged Chamberlain in the 'manners of translation' (hon'yaku no shikata) (p. 108). Waley was not happy about Chamberlain's translations. They were, for Waley, works of 'philology' not 'literature' (cited in 104). In a word, Chamberlain lacked beauty and elegance. Waley's success as a translator owes much to his beautiful prose, which was praised by Raymond Mortimer as 'the most beautiful English prose of our time' (cited p. 416). It is this prose that makes Waley's version of The Tale of Genji important today even after the publication of other English versions.

A few interesting points are highlighted regarding Waley's translation – all absent in de Gruchy's book. Waley changed some minute parts of the sensual Heian (794-1192) literature to make it more acceptable to contemporary English sensibilities. For example, there is a scene in The Tale of Genji in which, pining for a young woman named Utsusemi, the hero Genji sleeps wearing the nightgown she left behind. (Utsusemi is a local governor's wife. Genji, a young handsome prince, who was interested in middle-class women, happened to stay at her house and attempted to seduce her. The gown was dropped when she escaped from Genji's approaches). Thinking this unsuitable for contemporary English sensibilities, Waley rewrote the gown as a scarf. As Hirakawa notes, English literature has a tradition of pining for a woman through a handkerchief as typically seen in Othello. Interestingly, the American translator Edward Seidensticker, who published his version of The Tale of Genji in 1976, was unhappy about Waley's version, finding the hero too 'tartly British' (cited at p. 268). Despite his verbatim stance, Seidensticker too changed minute parts in order to make the story more acceptable for American readers. As Hirakawa notes, the male protagonists including the hero, Genji, were seen by Seidensticker as too effeminate, weeping a little too often in the original. In order to match the more stoic mood of his American readers, Seidensticker omitted some scenes of weeping and thus made the protagonists more masculine (p. 268). (As Hirakawa notes, The Tale of Genji was also ill-received in the stoic samurai society.)

Despite a basic affinity with de Gruchy, Hirakawa mentions his book only twice in the footnotes and criticizes de Gruchy's 'ideological' (hajime ni ketsuron ariki) stance (pp. 456-57, 471). Yet, if that is the case, Hirakawa's schemata of an Orientalist Chamberlain and an anti-Orientalist Waley seems to me to be equally ideological. Considering Chamberlain's achievements as a translator, it is possible to view him as an anti-Orientalist like Waley rather than an Orientalist. If Chamberlain really had been an Orientalist, Hirakawa may need to explain why Chamberlain was so un-Orientalist in translating Japanese classics into English. Hirakawa criticizes Chamberlain as an individual who wronged Japan to praise the West (p. 115). We do not have to wrong Chamberlain to praise Waley.

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About the Author

Rie Kido Askew was awarded a PhD from the Center of Post-Colonial Studies, Department of English, Monash University, Australia, in August 2009. Her research interests are Japanese and English literature, modern thought and history, and the universal issue of the dilemma of modernity and cultural loss. Her published papers include 'A Literate Tiger: "Sangetsuki" (Tiger-Poet) and the Tragedy of Discordance' (Japanese Studies, December 2005), 'The Politics of Nostalgia: Museum Representations of Lafcadio Hearn in Japan' (Museum and Society, November 2007). Her PhD thesis, 'Reading Lafcadio: Culture, Nationalism and the Making of "Koizumi Yakumo"', examined the Japanese reception of Lafcadio Hearn.

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Copyright: Rie Kido Askews
This page was first created on  30 November 2009.

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