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  • The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature by Michael Emmerich
  • Dennis Washburn
The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature. By Michael Emmerich. Columbia University Press, 2013. 512 pages. Hardcover $60.00; softcover $30.00.

Translation is, in one sense, mere re-writing—an extreme form of reading that takes the extra step of replacing another’s words with one’s own. This characterization may seem to negatively emphasize the derivative nature of the task, but it also suggests that we should think of the practice of translation in terms of a rigorous hermeneutics. This is the approach taken by Michael Emmerich in his brilliant and ambitious study, which traces the history of the modern re-creation of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) as both a classic of Japanese culture and a canonical work of world literature. His primary theme is not just translations of Genji, or translation per se, but rather Genji as translation. He doesn’t consider translation as just a task unto itself, but as a critical methodology that underpins everything we do as scholars of literature.

A review of this length cannot do justice to the scope of Emmerich’s subject matter, nor to the rich complexity of his work—the depth of the research, the careful qualifications throughout the analysis, the coherence with which the main themes are developed—and must unavoidably involve some foreshortening and distortion. The complexity of the subject is beautifully captured in the structure of the book, in which six main chapters are theoretically and historically framed by a series of intervention: following an introduction, parts 1 and 2, comprising three main chapters each, are headed by sections the author refers to as “touchstones.” In setting up his theoretical scaffolding, Emmerich makes clear that he is reading Genji against common notions of reception, a term he finds too passive, in order to shift our focus away from the misleading presumption that the very notion of a classical text points to some stable underlying original. He asks us instead to think of reception and translation as parts of a process that he describes as “replacing the text” (p. 1 and elsewhere). [End Page 163]

Replacement has two senses in this formulation. Interpretations, adaptations, and translations are not simply passive forms of reception, but active appropriations that replace (take the place of) a source text in order to re-place (reposition) the “original” within contemporary sociocultural spheres. Emmerich posits translation as perhaps the “paradigmatic form of replacement” (p. 40), an observation that, in my view, plays in an interesting way with Walter Benjamin’s claim that translation is a means by which other texts survive. The author does not use “text” in an abstract sense (for example, to signify the meanings and images of Genji that we possess in our consciousness as readers), but to refer to the various material forms and objects through which a narrative may be conveyed. Emmerich acknowledges that his own use of various terms like “canonization,” “reception,” and “classic” reflects the destabilizing force of the idea of “replacing the text,” but the move he makes by introducing the concept of “replacement” is an extremely productive way to get us to rethink the cultural status of Genji.

The history of Genji’s canonization occupies much of the book. Chapters 1–3 promote the argument that Ryūtei Tanehiko’s Nise Murasaki inaka Genji (A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji, serialized in thirty-eight chapters over the period 1829– 1842) was instrumental in the early modern/modern canonization of Genji. Chapters 4–6 then trace the process by which Genji, a Heian-period text, came to circulate within two cultural spheres: the space of the modern nation, as a text that purportedly represents the particular essence of Japanese culture, and the space represented by the concept of world literature, which presumes the universality of human experience.

The claim for the importance of Inaka Genji to the modern re-creation of Genji rests on the fact that Tanehiko’s work was the first broadly popular replacement for Murasaki Shikibu’s narrative, which was probably not read widely in Heian-period Japanese during the Edo period...


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pp. 163-169
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