The Summer Giant Book Project: After Broch’s The Death of Virgil, What? Perhaps The Tale of Genji

No more Broch: There's a new sherrif in town!

No more Broch: There’s a new sherriff in town!

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.

tale of genji dennis washburn 51lpKmqt3yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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.

Arthur Waley's translation

Arthur Waley’s translation (abridged)

seidensticker genji 61YAAC0KNXL

Edward Seidensticker’s translation

He explains,

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?

Any recommendations?

9 thoughts on “The Summer Giant Book Project: After Broch’s The Death of Virgil, What? Perhaps The Tale of Genji

  1. Oh, translation is so difficult! I think a lot of early translators did skip bits and that kind of makes it hard to trust what you’re reading. But then again, if the one with the missing bits sounds better that’s the one you want to read. I have a post scheduled which discusses just this subject…..


    • Waley’s seems to be a classic in its own right, regardless of what he left out, like Constance Garnett’s Russian translations! But I’ll prob play it safer with a later translation.:) There is a fascinating novella by Anita Desai, in which a translator gets so carried away she starts rewriting books entirely (which no one will know since they don’t know the language).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have this edition of Broch’s “The Death of Virgil” because I liked the cover – stupid, of course – and I have it in a more sober edition in French. You give me hope not to be as silly as I think I am if even you could not go past the first hundred pages of that novel. I tried it both in French and in English and could not go very far each time.
    I read in English to avoid translation, the same with Italian, German and Spanish – and Latin. But I sometimes try to read French books in English translation. And I cringe. There is so much missing. It is even worse when I read reviews by English-speaking readers of French books translated into English. They often miss the point, or do not see the historical and sociological context. And miss most references.
    In this case, I often prefer an inventive translation that is totally unfaithful to the text and says so. Why not a parallel between Bloomsbury and old Japan? But the author has to tell you what he is doing.


    • Yes, translation is inexact. It is difficult to really know a work of literature if one doesn’t know the language! I do love literature in translation, but I keep it in mind that I’m completely indebted to the translator.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read the Arthur Waley translation of Genji during college days and loved it. I drifted in a different world where I didn’t find any of the concerns of my life at that time. Waley’s version stands (in memory) as a book worthy in its own terms. Perhaps it was not “translated from” but “inspired by” the Japanese.


    • Everyone seems to feel that about Waley! I’m thinking I can get that one as a free e-book. I’d rather be inspired than plod through something…


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