It is a running joke in my family that I have a Giant Book Project every summer. I am happy to read a giant Dickens, a giant George Eliot, or a giant Sigrid Undset. No one would be surprised to see me lugging a set of Balzac in one of those carts you attach to your bike. In 2010, I made a mistake: I decided to read Hermann Broch’s modernist classic, The Death of Virgil. I have started it, abandoned it, and restarted it for six summers… and after 100 pages last year I crossed it off my list as unreadable.
Naturally it should be the perfect book for a former Latin teacher who taught Virgil’s Aeneid many times. (Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris/Italiam, fato profugus... And if I were your teacher, you memorized more.)
What could be more intriguing to a Latinist than a novel depicting Virgil’s dying days, in the form of poetic stream-of-consciousness, with the sole action in the first 100 pages being the dying man’s ogling a boy as Virgil is carried on a stretcher from Augustus’s ship to the palace? Give me a cereal box. Give me the directions to the microwave. Give me The New York Review of Books. Snore zzzzzzzz
Lovely prose, if you like your sentencesto go on for pages.
And floating in his awareness, floatingly borne aloft over the shouting heads, floatingly borne aloft over the festival fires of uproarious Brundisium, floating, held high in the undulant movement of the present, he experience the boundless contraction of trime’s onrush in the style of immutalibity: everything was his, all was embodied in him…
That floating goes on for a couple of more pages.
In Mary McCarthy’s academic satire, The Groves of Academe, she sketches a hilarious picture of a “progressive” college where the students have tutorials instead of classes, and major in whatever they want, even if it is Broch’s The Death of Virgil and they don’t know Latin. I can ditch the whole problem of what is possibly a bad translation of Broch and reread Virgil in the original.
So what will my Big Book of the Summer be? You know, the one I’ve always meant to read, but never finish!
The Tale of Genji.
Years ago I read 300 pages of this lyrical if rambling eleventh-century Japanese novel in Tyler Royall’s translation (Penguin). l enjoyued it up to a point, but shut the book one day and realized I preferred reading Fielding’ randy rambling Tom Jones to Lady Murasaki’s randy g1100-plus page masterpiece. But Last summer I had second thoughts: I bought an e-book of Dennis Washburn’s new scholarly translation for $2.99. I quite liked it in moderation, but I was critical of Washburn’s style. It has that slightly awkward air of this-may-fit-well-in-Japanese-but-the English-is-improvised-Western-man-meets-Lady Marasaki.
I am, however, not wedded to this transltion. In Ian Buruma’s review in The New Yorker last summer, he described the difficulties of translation, named the former translators, and compared their styles of other tarnslators.
The chief difficulty in translating “Genji,” into modern Japanese almost as much as into English, is the extreme elusiveness of Heian-period court Japanese—not just the language itself but also the many references and allusions. Every page is sprinkled with poems or phrases pointing to Chinese and Japanese literary sources that an eleventh-century aesthete might have been proud to notice but are lost on most Japanese today, let alone the reader of an English translation. Another problem lies in the character names. Since it was thought to be rude to call people by their birth names, most of the people in “Genji” are identified only by rank. A common solution in translations is to use nicknames derived from poems the characters compose or from their physical surroundings or qualities: Lady Rokujo lived in a mansion on Rokujo, or Sixth Avenue; Lady Fujitsubo lived in the Fujitsubo, or Wisteria Pavilion. Genji’s grandson, Niou, a devastatingly handsome womanizer, is known as the Perfumed Prince, because of his exquisite smell (niou, in Japanese).
A literal translation of “Genji” would be unreadable. And the vagueness, so poetic in Japanese, would simply be unintelligible to the Western reader. The trick is to retain the flavor of Murasaki’s lyrical style while transmitting, with some degree of precision, what she meant to say. Since we often don’t really know what she meant, much has to be left to guesswork and interpretation.
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.
This is all very interesting, and I’m thinking of trying the Waley or Seidensticker.
Have any of you read this?