The Tale of Genji
When Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji came out, volume by volume, in the late Twenties and early Thirties, the austere Sinologue and poet said that Lady Murasaki’s work was “unsurpassed by any long novel in the world.” If we murmured, “What about Don Quixote or War and Peace?” we were, all the same, enchanted by the classic of Heian Japan which was written in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and we talked about its “modern voice.” What we really meant was that the writing was astonishingly without affectation. Critics spoke of a Japanese Proust or Jane Austen, even of a less coarse Boccaccio. They pointed also to the seeming collusion of the doctrines of reincarnation or the superstition of demonic possession with the Freudian unconscious—and so on.
Arthur Waley admitted a remote echo of Proust, for there was a nostalgia for temps perdu in a small aristocratic civilization; but he was quick to point out that the long and rambling Tale was hardly a psychological novel in the Western sense. The Chinese had excelled in lyrical poetry, but despised fiction outside of legend and fairy tale; in Japan, Lady Murasaki’s contemporaries were given only to diarizing. What she had contrived was an original mingling of idealizing romance and chronicle, but a more apt analogy was with music: the effect of her classical and elegant mosaic suggested the immediate, crystalline quality of Mozart. Evocations of instrumental music and also of things like the music of insects occur on page after page: at one point Genji floods a garden with thousands of crickets. The more one thinks about this, one sees that Waley’s insight contains a truth: it is music that steps across the one thousand years that separate us from Lady Murasaki.
A translator like Waley would have European reasons for thinking her “modern”: Japanese art had played its part in the revolution that was occurring in European painting—see Van Gogh, and Picasso in the early 1900s—and English prose was ceasing to be Big Bow Wow. Both the sententious and the precious were yielding to the personal, the conversational, the unofficial, the unaffected, and the fantastic—one sees this in Forster and, above all, in Virginia Woolf, who had contrived an ironical mingling of the formal and natural. Such a change reflects the moment when a culture reaches a sunset in which private relationships are given supreme importance and when there is leisure for wit and perspective and an intense sensibility to the arts for their own sake.
I think this may go some way to explain why the post-1914 period in England produced brilliant translations like Waley’s, Beryl de Zoete’s Confessions of Zeno (which may have improved on the regional prose of Trieste, but captured the marked Viennese spirit of the original), Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, and Constance Garnett’s Chekhov and Turgenev. Their translations are gracefully late-Edwardian, and are, of course, metaphors; the translators felt an affinity …