The Tale of Genji

Author: Murasaki Shikibu
Translator: Royall Tyler
U.S. publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780142437148
Released: November 2002
Original release: 11th century

When I began looking for an English edition of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji to read, I had only two major requirements. First, I wanted a complete and unabridged translation, and second, I wanted a translation that was true to the original. The most comprehensive edition that I was able to find, and the one I ended up reading, was Royall Tyler’s translation. Penguin first released Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji in 2001 as a two-volume hardcover box set and then later in 2003 in a massive single-volume paperback edition (which is the version I own and read.) I wanted to read The Tale of Genji for several reasons. It is a major work of Japanese literature that continues to be highly influential. It was also written during the Heian period in the eleventh century, making it one of the first novels to have been written. But one of the primary reasons I wanted to read The Tale of Genji was to understand all of the references made to it that I keep coming across.

The Tale of Genji is an epic, inter-generational story filled with court intrigue, passion, desire and longing, with just a touch of the supernatural. It’s almost like reading a Heian period soap opera. The eponymous Genji is the son of the Emperor’s favorite Intimate. An exceptional man in both appearance and character, much of The Tale of Genji follows his life and romantic exploits. And because of his good looks, he is able to get away with much more than he really should. The last third of the novel turns to the lives of his heirs and descendants and their own romantic follies. While there is certainly an overarching narrative to The Tale of Genji, the novel frequently feels like a collection of very closely interconnected short stories. There is also a fair amount of humor in the tale. It’s as if the reader is privy to the best court gossip and scandals.

One of the things that I love about Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji is that it is so much more than just a translation. In addition to the copious and very helpful footnotes, Tyler provides an abundance of other useful information about the work and its context in the form of an extensive introduction, maps and diagrams, a chronology, general glossary, explanations of the importance of clothing and color, descriptions of offices and titles, a summary of the numerous poetic allusions, a list of characters, and suggestions for further reading. Each chapter begins with an explanation of its title, its relationships to other chapters, and indicates which characters are involved and the current title by which they are known. Also included are delightful line illustrations by Minoru Sugai depicting scenes and objects from The Tale of Genji, originally commissioned by Shogakukan Publishing. The only thing missing that I would have liked to have seen would be a family and relationship chart since things can get pretty complicated.

Granted, I haven’t read any others to be able to compare, but I am very glad that I chose Tyler’s translation of The Tale of Genji. Because Tyler remains so faithful to the original Japanese it’s not always an easy read due to the amount of detail that must be gleaned from context rather than being explicitly stated and the complicated sentence structures. But Tyler offers plenty of guidance for the reader who wants it and I found his translation to be both elegant, accessible, and informative. Even excluding the additional material provided by Tyler, The Tale of Genji is a lengthy novel. Instead of ploughing through the book like I might have, I chose to take my time with the novel, reading a few chapters every few weeks and extending my enjoyment over a long period. Reading The Tale of Genji was a wonderfully immersive experience into Heian period Japan. For me, it was completely worth the time and effort required to really appreciate the tale.

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  1. Great review – and wish I’d read this before buying the one I have (and have just started). I have the Arthur Waley edition, and although it is original and has a few interesting footnotes and an introduction there is no chronology or a map. It is also just the first book (another thing I have only just realised reading your review). I do wish publishers would make this sort of thing more clear on the cover.

    Ah well, I’ll read on, and if I continue to like it, I’ll probably invest in this one also.

    Many thanks for the review.

  2. Thanks for visiting Clare, I’m glad you found my review useful! Thank you also for the kind words.

    I haven’t read the Waley edition, but I know many consider it one of the more readable translations of The Tale of Genji. Like I mentioned in my review though, I was very happy with Tyler’s translation. I hope you enjoy The Tale of Genji no matter which version you end up reading.


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