The Tale of Genji was originally written in an archaic form of Japanese, and has been translated both into modern Japanese and into English multiple times. Wikipedia says "The first English translation was attempted in 1882 but was of poor quality and incomplete", and lists a whole bunch of translators:

Suematsu Kenchō, Arthur Waley, Edward G. Seidensticker, Helen McCullough, Royall Tyler, Dennis Washburn

Among the variety of English translations from various people and eras, which one is the closest to the original text? I'd like to read a translation rather than a retelling, and I'm happy to read something written in a deliberately old-fashioned style of English, but not something that's equally hard for modern English readers as the original story is for modern Japanese readers (think Austen or Shakespeare but not Chaucer).

  • Why is this not an opinion-based question?
    – verbose
    Commented May 19, 2021 at 0:30
  • @verbose I don't know, maybe it is. It's a bit scope-stretching, but I think "accurate" and "readable" are relatively definable - I'm not just asking for the "best" translation.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 21, 2021 at 6:49

1 Answer 1


First, from Wikipedia:

The first partial translation of Genji Monogatari into English was by Suematsu Kenchō, published in 1882. Arthur Waley published a six-volume translation of all but one chapter, with the first volume published in 1921 and the last in 1933. In 1976, Edward Seidensticker published the first complete translation into English, made using a self-consciously "stricter" approach with regards to content if not form. The English translation published in 2001 by Royall Tyler aims at fidelity in content and form to the original text. The most recently written ("Genji and the Luck of the Sea") dates from 2007. Its initial version has been extensively revised, retitled, and updated for this publication.

Major English translations in chronological order

  • The Suematsu Genji (1882) – Suematsu's Genji was the first translation into English, but is considered of poor quality and is not often read today. Significantly, only a few chapters were completed.
  • The Waley Genji (1921–1933) –Waley's Genji is considered a great achievement for his time, although some purists have criticized Waley's changes to the original. Others have criticized as overly-free the manner in which Waley translated the original text. Regardless, it continues to be well-appreciated and widely read today. When the Waley Genji was first published, it was eagerly received. For example, Time explained that "the reviewers' floundering tributes indicate something of its variegated appeal. In limpid prose The Tale combines curiously modern social satire with great charm of narrative. Translator Waley has done service to literature in salvaging to the Occident this masterpiece of the Orient."
  • The Seidensticker Genji (1976) – Seidensticker's Genji is an attempt to correct what were perceived to have been Waley's failings without necessarily making his translation obsolete. Seidensticker hews more closely to the original text, but in the interests of readability, he takes some liberties. For example, he identifies most of the characters by name so that the narrative can be more easily followed by a broad-based audience of Western readers. (In 2008, a 4,400-page Braille version of the Seidensticker Genji was completed. This Braille edition was the product of five Japanese housewives from Setagaya, Tokyo, working voluntarily for five years and was subsequently donated to the Japan Braille Library (日本点字図書館) and the Library of Congress. It is also available for download.)
  • The McCullough Genji (1994) – An abridgement.
  • The Tyler Genji (2001) – Tyler's Genji contains more extensive explanatory footnotes and commentary than the previous translations, describing the numerous poetical allusions and cultural aspects of the tale. Tyler consciously attempted to mimic the original style in ways that the previous translations did not. For example, this version does not use names for most characters, identifying them instead by their titles in a manner which was conventional in the context of the 11th-century original text – "...while wonderfully evocative of the original, can be difficult to follow...". Tyler's version "makes a special virtue of attending to a certain ceremonial indirectness in the way the characters address one another. The great temptation for a translator is to say the unsaid things, and Tyler never gives in to it."[attribution needed] This has been praised by some critics[who?] as "preserving more of what once seemed unfamiliar or strange to English readers",[attribution needed] as understanding the culture of Lady Murasaki's time is arguably a chief reason for reading Genji.
  • The Washburn Genji (2015) – Dennis Washburn's Genji separates the poems from the prose and puts interior thoughts in italics. The translation has been received slightly more controversially than Tyler's.

We can safely cross the Suematsu Genji off the list as Wikipedia suggests it is of poor quality. I doubt Suematsu Kenchō was proficient in either classical Japanese or English, as it seems he didn't receive enough training in either.

The answer I am going to post today is probably a non-answer, or an incomplete one at best, because I have not seen all of the translations you list here and there is no way in hell I can read and comment on all of them in one go. But I'd like to get this answer rolling by digging at the translations one by one, making comments and pointing things out based on my understanding as I encounter them. It is decidedly going to be a work in progress for a long while, and at any point anyone who wishes to add to this answer as opposed to start their own is welcome to make this answer a community wiki. Otherwise, I will add to this answer from time to time. I don't plan on going too deep into a translation if I spot things that I consider fatal, things that take away from the translation's accuracy. I am for foreignization especially when it comes to ancient texts and I think altering the meaning to the point the tone changes is unacceptable. So this answer might eventually shape up to be a list of dealbreakers for me but caveat emptor: everybody is welcome to weigh the pros and cons and make their own decision.

As your question states the The original text Tale of Genji is not an easy read for modern Japanese readers. It has to be read in translation in Japan. Excerpts of the Tale of Genji are taken out and taught in high school as part of the Japanese classics curriculum (高校古典). Even competent native Japanese speakers have to pay attention in class to fully grasp the grammar and content of the text. Wikibooks Japanese has a list of the passages used in high school textbooks.

As of now the only Genji text in English I have been able to find online is the Arthur Waley translation through this link in the meta challenge announcement. The first few pages read fine, but I find the flow of the text and the way things are explained more in line with what the English reader would have been accustomed to a century ago than the way courtiers would have acted in Murasaki Shikibu's time. It is not difficult to see why Time praised the Waley Genji for using "limpid prose" and making the "masterpiece of the Orient" accessible to the Western literati.

Comparing Waley's translation with the original Japanese text and modern Japanese translations, I have spotted many places where Waley took outrageous and scandalizing liberties with the original text, reflecting how limited Waley's knowledge of classical Japanese (古文) must have been. Elaborating on any one of them takes a whole lot of time and energy, so I will just talk about one particular example that I find downright unacceptable:

輦車の宣旨などのたまはせても、また入らせたまひて、さらにえ許させたまはず。 「限りあらむ道にも、後れ先立たじと、契らせたまひけるを。さりとも、うち捨てては、え行きやらじ」

Let's look at the Waley translation of this passage:

The Waley Genji:
In great trouble and perplexity he sent for a hand litter. But when they would have laid her in it, he forbad them, saying 'There was an oath between us that neither should go alone upon the road that all at last must tread. How can I now let her go from me?'

First, does this English passage make sense? Yes it does, unfortunately. (I will get to why it is unfortunate that this passage makes sense but doesn't fly with me.) "He" is the Emperor; she the Wardrobe lady (Kiritsubo Consort). This English passage presents us with a coherent account of how much it pained the Emperor to part with his consort. Sure, the idea is there. But did Waley get the details right? No. This is a good example of a "Close, but no cigar" case.

Some comments at first glance: "In great trouble" is a bit of a dated usage that means the Emperor is in pain and deeply troubled. It doesn't mean the same as the modern usage that he is in trouble with the authorities. Hand litter is an OK translation but I would probably prefer "handcart" or more specifically "hand-pulled litter on wheels" to set it apart from the Chinese or Korean litter. This is a 輦 or 輦車:

enter image description here

Modern readers, especially readers of foreign translations, need to understand this passage is a very difficult passage--and for that matter so is the entirety of the Tale--because the subject and object of each clause are usually omitted, a syntactic holdover shared by modern Japanese. Complements and adverbials indicating time, location, etc. are also omitted. To understand who does what, who is the subject and performs a certain action, you need to understand Japanese honorific speech (敬語). In general there are three types of 敬語: 尊敬語 (respectful language), 丁寧語 (polite language), 謙譲語 (humble language). What kind of speech style you use depends on the absolute and relative social status of the action performer and action receiver. To complicate the matter further, remember we have a constant and ubiquitous third party in the text--the narrator Murasaki Shikibu. Her personal voice follows us throughout the telling of the story as it was imperative that she pay proper respect to her characters depending on their statuses. A lot of the times she had to use 最高敬語 (respectful speech of the highest order) as the story she told is of royalty. This is not Japanese.SE and I am no expert in 敬語 in any sense, so I won't go into further detail on 敬語. Just know that even highly proficient native Japanese speakers make mistakes with archaic and/or complex honorific form all the time.

Modern Japanese scholars and translators of Japanese classics have reached consensus and corrected mistakes in older translations--this includes translations into modern Japanese and into foreign languages. Let's look at the standard modern interpretation of this part:

Modern translation:
手車を許可する勅使も出したが、すぐ自分が入ってしまいどうしても手元から離さないのであった。 「死ぬ時も一緒、後れたり先んじたりしない、と約束していたではないか。まさかわたしを捨てて先には行かせないぞ」

Note: I am basing the modern Japanese translation on several sources, to list a few: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. These translations vary in their wording but a convergence is reached by all of them on the plot and actions. I am using the first one because it cites a laundry list of authoritative references from renowned Japanese Genji scholars and also because it is in plain text and allows me to pull the copy and paste trick.

Allow me to translate it into English:

[The Emperor] ordered a hand-pulled litter on wheels [for Kiritsubo Consort to go back to her hometown]. But [when the litter arrived] he immediately went back [to Kiritsubo Consort's room] and wouldn't let go of her [, and said] "[We] made a promise [to each other] that neither of us shall fall behind or go ahead of the other on the journey beyond our worldly limits. You are not leaving me behind, are you!"

Compare this to Waley's:

In great trouble and perplexity he sent for a hand litter. But when they would have laid her in it, he forbad them, saying 'There was an oath between us that neither should go alone upon the road that all at last must tread. How can I now let her go from me?'

We can see Waley got a number of things wrong. He failed to translate また入らせたまひて correctly because he mistook Kiritsubo Consort for the performer of the action. The action is "enter" and he thought it was the consort who was described to be entering something, so he put down "when they would have laid her in it". But it is actually the Emperor who is performing the entering. How do we know this for sure? Remember what I said about honorifics in Japanese? Verbs conjugate based on who the subject is, who the object is, and their relative social status. Here Murasaki uses respectful speech of the highest order, so it is only possible that she is describing the Emperor. It is the Emperor who (re)enters.

Waley also mistranslated 限りあらむ道. He put down "the road that all at last must tread". The idea is clear as this is a euphemistic reference to death, but it seems to me he didn't understand 限り. That word means limit. I would translate it as a journey that extends beyond our worldly limits. There is no mention of "all at last must tread" in the original text.

"How can I now let her go from me?" is so glaring a mistake that I doubt he could speak the language (apparently he taught himself to read classical Japanese/Chinese, probably not speak). The line is addressed to Kiritsubo Consort, so the object should be the second person pronoun "you". Also the tone is slightly reproachful albeit full of pain. This is the Emperor talking, so even in a moment of great pain and love showing and even to the object of his affection, he still retains his undisputed authoritativeness and unquestionable power. "You made a promise to me. How could you leave me (and die first)?" would roughly be the modern equivalent. But it is said more elegantly and with more respect. In comparison, Waley mistakenly rendered it as a short soliloquy in the form of a rhetorical question exuding self-doubt that simply isn't there in the original text.

In conclusion I completely disagree with this statement on Wiki: "Regardless, it continues to be well-appreciated and widely read today." No it deviates from the original so much that it should stop being read. Arthur Waley taught himself classical Japanese which might have been a feat back in his day but, without formal training, would be decidedly inadequate today. His translation clearly fumbled the meaning of many key words and strayed too far.

Donald Keene also points to the beginning of the fourth chapter and compares Waley and Seidensticker's translations (source: Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Keene, Donald, 1999, pp 477-514):

Any passage would do almost equally well to suggest the complexities, which tend to disappear in fluent translations that eliminate run-on sentences or augment the original with explanations. The following passage occurs near the beginning of the “Yugao” chapter:

Mikuruma irubeki kado wa sashitarikereba, hito shite Koremitsu mesasete, matasetamaikeru hodo, mutsukashige naru oji no sama wo miwatase shitamaeru ni, kono ie no katawara ni, higaki to iu mono wo atarashu shite, kami wa, hajitomi shigoken bakari agewatashite, sudare nado mo ito shiro suzushige naru ni, okashiki hitaitsuki no sukikage, amata miete nozoku. Tachisamayouran shimotsukata omoiyaru ni, anagachi ni taketakaki kokochi zo suru.

It is not possible to make an absolutely literal rendering, but the meaning is approximately: “Because the gate through which carriages were admitted was locked, he sent a man for Koremitsu, and while he waited, he ran his eyes along the disreputable-looking street [and noticed] that [someone] in the house next door had newly [put up] what they call a cypress-bark fence, above which [someone] had lifted the row of four or five shutters; the blinds looked very white and cool, and he could dimly see through them many charming foreheads peeping [at him]. When he tried imagining the lower parts [of the figures] that seemed to be wandering around, he had a feeling that they must be very tall.”

The translation by Arthur Waley renders this passage:

[H]e managed to find the house; but the front gate was locked and he could not drive in. He sent one of his servants for Koremitsu, his foster-nurse’s son, and while he was waiting began to examine the rather wretched-looking by-street. The house next door was fenced with a new paling, above which at one place were four or five panels of open trellis-work, screened by blinds which were very white and bare. Through chinks in the blinds a number of foreheads could be seen. They seemed to belong to a group of ladies who must be peeping with interest into the street below. At first he thought that they had merely peeped out as they passed; but he soon realized that if they were standing on the floor they must be giants. No, evidently they had taken the trouble to climb on to some table or bed; which was surely rather odd!

Edward Seidensticker’s translation is closer to the original:

The carriage entrance was closed. He sent for Koremitsu and while he was waiting looked up and down the dirty, cluttered street. Beside the nurse’s house was a new fence of plaited cypress. The four or five narrow shutters above had been raised, and new blinds, white and clean, hung in the apertures. He caught outlines of pretty foreheads beyond. He would have judged, as they moved about, that they belonged to rather tall women.

Waley’s amplification of the text—especially his placing the women on “some table or bed,” though it is hard to imagine a Heian room containing either—was undoubtedly inspired by his desire to make the text as immediately intelligible as possible to the European reader. Murasaki Shikibu does not explain why the women looked tall, and Waley felt obliged to insert an explanation. Seidensticker evidently preferred not to mention the peeping of the women nor their lower parts (shimotsukata), nor did he attempt to explain the tallness of the women. Waley is perhaps closer to the original than Seidensticker in the leisurely pace of the sentences. But probably no translator could be completely faithful both to the original and to the English language.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.