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Going to Bed with Waley: How Murasaki Shikibu Does and Does Not Become World Literature

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 45, Number 1, 2008
pp. 40-61 | 10.1353/cls.0.0010

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The question of how and why works from a given national context merge into what Goethe first termed Weltliteratur has become extremely topical, what with the recent appearance of such seminal books as Pascale Casanova's La République mondiale des lettres (1999) [The World Republic of Letters (2005)], David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? (2003), Christopher Prendergast's Debating World Literature (2004), and numerous studies on the issue of translation and power (e.g., the essay collection edited by Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler in 2002).1 As Damrosch pointedly asks: "Which literature, whose world?" (1). The emerging global perspective of comparative literature has countered its historical Eurocentrism, but the practice of analyzing, recreating, and disseminating the literary production of worlds beyond the discipline's traditional purview may serve merely to reinforce the dominant, masculine, Western worldview, thus ultimately distorting what it purports to value. The transformation that works of national literature undergo in taking their place within globalization involves not simply the replacing of one set of linguistic signs for another, but also a fundamental and often politically charged shift. Although interlingual and intercultural transposition add to the influence of a given text by rendering it accessible to that broader audience, this necessarily means forcing it into a new and unfamiliar mold for greater ease of consumption and assimilation, thereby eliding linguistic and other difference and harming the text and its unique contextual identity. Accordingly, comparatists need to focus attention on the intricacies of reception history, examining the role of translation as a privileged yet problematic vehicle for cultural exchange and global canon formation.

The Genji Monogatari [Tale of Genji], written by a woman we know by the sobriquet of Murasaki Shikibu , has become widely accepted in both West and East as a world masterpiece, but far from transparently so. How does a work located for centuries within the Japanese canon become ensconced in a global canon and, more importantly, what form does this worlded Genji take? To begin to answer this sort of question, I want to indulge in a speculative look at a path not taken with regard to the translation history of this great tale, in the interests of suggesting the absent perspective of a potentially ideal translation that we do not and never will have: a version of this masterpiece as read by Virginia Woolf. This notion is not as far-fetched as it may at first appear. The author of A Room of One's Own and Orlando did, after all, review the first part of Arthur Waley's rendition in 1925, but suppose she had actually set about to offer her own translation? Woolf learned Russian well enough to collaborate on English versions of several works from that body of literature, and it was therefore not unfeasible for her to have done the same with Japanese.2 In conducting the following thought-experiment, I will be specifically interested in what has not been available to be read in the existing versions of Murasaki Shikibu's great tale—the lacunae, or what Lawrence Venuti has called the remainder, namely those aspects of a text that, for a variety of reasons, do not get "carried across."3

Over the past three-quarters of a century, the Genji has been rendered more or less fully into English by three different translators: Waley in the 1920s and 1930s; Edward Seidensticker in 1976; and Royall Tyler in 2001. Translations of a foreign, orientalized culture can operate as a form of Western aggression and colonization, appropriating the Other for its own purposes. This effect is aggravated several times over when a Japanese court lady writing women's lives and women's selves a millennium ago is rendered for an English-language audience only by men, and men who possess varying motivations as her mediators. A proper regard for the author-reader relationship, as well as the respective cultural values of host and receptor societies, insists that we "map the journeys texts undertake" and examine the multiple causes and effects behind any move from national to world literature, considering the impact of cultural appropriation, textual manipulation, ideology, and gender identification.4

The Genji dates from the early eleventh...



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