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Re(2):Translations of Genji (attn IGGY/MAOU)
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I was focused on my training to face the hordes of Sagat next year, but your call for help has reached me in the jungle, dear Spoon, and I shall save you from the dangers of taking to Maou without the supervision of an adult. Apologies in advance if half of the message doesn't make sense, because typing is HARD. So, coming out time: I could never finish the Genji MG. The French translation at the time was written in a puzzling language that had only distant echoes from the French I've been taught. I had to navigate it with a modern Japanese translation in the other hand, jumping from one to the other to the other's notes until since of this made sense. After a couple of chapters it became unbearably tedious, and before chapter 10 I threw my hands in the air and just read the abridged version at the end of the Japanese book. Several years later, I was in a seminar with then fellow doctors trying to make a new translation that would be at the same time accurate and readable. I think I called it quit after we spent two hours on one word trying to understand what kind of vehicle that word could be in this particular context. I think you have the wrong idea about the language of the book. Latin is not a good comparison. Latin was a dead language before the Genji was written, but it was the language of the elite: you would write laws and diplomatic treaties in it, regardless of each country's actual language, and it was the language of the church, who was trying to adjust its grip on the embryonic idea of monarchy. Latin was a very political language, maybe because it was a dead language. You're closer with Shakespeare, though you need to remember that before Shakespeare was Chauncer, and before Chauncer was absolute chaos. Maybe a better comparison would be with Beowulf ? I'm not sure. Also, the trick is that Heian Japanese IS understandable if you know modern Japanese. It has many obsolete words and different grammar rules, not to mention very different cultural landscape, but you can grasp a general idea of what the topic is about by reading it. The Pillow Book, the "other" ultra famous book written by a woman in Heian in Japanese, is paradoxically easier to read even though it's not narrative. The big problem of the language of the Genji MG is that it is so allusive it is a language all by itself. The comparison is all sorts of inadequate, but imagine being a reader from the 30th century trying to understand 4chan, or the forums of Something Awful. You'd need to check in the Urban Dictionary at each meme or reference, then try to understand why would sometimee post an image of an actor making a funny face in reaction to a question about politics, and remember to use a cached version of the Urban Dictionary of the year of the message you're reading, as memes move fast. The Genji MG is like that. It is written for such a small crowd, with such a complex common culture that is constantly reinforced as a way to separate "us" from "any savage that isn't us", that every word has received several layers of meaning and echoes that are as obvious for the author as they are for her audience. We are not that audience. Reading the Genji MG in the 21st century is really asking yourself the question of "what is reading", even before you ask yourself what is translation. Are you simply reading a story, and you want to know how it ends ? Do you want a glimpse of a time long gone ? Are you interested in "what the author meant" ? How can you every know what any author means ? What about the audience? Etc. Context is also a different issue. Most of the time, we read a book once, and we will never touch it again in our life. Rarely, you have a book that you feel like reading again later. Even more rarely, you have a book that demands to be read again periodically (Proust should be read every other year throughout one's life, for example). The Genji MG was written at a time when books where the most rare and expensive item you could own. You would pass it around, read it again, make each word your own, over and over. You would discuss it with everyone you knew, this small court of a few hundred people who would share the same humongous cultural knowledge. You would use it to create more common culture to set your group apart. Also, remember it was written slowly. I'm not even sure if Murasaki Shikibu could write an entire chapter before having it stolen from her and widely read aloud, while she would lament "oh, no, they are reading my private writing that I had created for me, I am the most popular girl at school, woe is me". If you think people are desperate to know what happens in the next Game of Thrones, imagine if the author was one of the only 1000 survivors of mankind in a ship going through space (a concept lacking in science fiction if I may). So each chapter was supposed to be read dozens of time before the next one would be released, each time in different context, with different people... Therefore, the text could be as obtuse as the author wanted (not many women had the Chinese culture she had) because you would then talk about each thing, start reminiscing poems about it, maybe notice patterns and allusions that the author didn't think of... Finally, another thing to consider is Murasaki's social position. We know very little of her life, but she was not a high ranking noble and she was not rich. She could approach and gaze at the world she's writing about, but she lived at the fringe of it. If there were 1000 people in the court, she was part of the 900 writing about the other 100. There is a lot of romance and idealisation in the book, and for sure the 100 were delighted to see themselves described in such beautiful and elegant manner. She knew them as well as Proust knew the duchesses he was writing about, but she was as distant to then as he was. There's a big part of fantasy in the Genji MG, a Mary Sue who keeps giggling when the most handsome man on earth she just made even more beautiful falls in love with her even though she's such a mundane, normal girl, te-he-he. The question you need to ask yourself is: is it relevant ? Do you read at the first degree, like a blunt fiction, do you try to see it through the rose tinted lenses of the author, do you want to try to imagine the author herself through the fiction, and then, aren't you the one making up your own novel in your mind ? All answers are valid. Sorry, I hear a tiger, gotta go.
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