Loss in Translation — by Henry Philip Blanton


While in Japan, I made a pilgrimage to Kyoto to visit the gravesite of Lady Murasaki, the courtesan who authored The Tale of Genji during the late 10th century. Remarkable for its subtle psychology of desire, The Tale of Genji is arguably the first novel ever written, and certainly one of the most important texts in the Japanese literary tradition. While the Genji’s length precludes any attempt at a concise and thorough synopsis, the text basically recounts the sexual conquests of prince Genji, the only son of the emperor of Japan and his favored concubine. Anticipating the 20th century obsession with the consequences of early trauma, Murasaki positions Genji’s early loss of his mother and subsequent tragic love affair with his mother’s doppelgänger as the formative experience of Genji’s life. After these two tragedies, Genji quests to find a suitable substitute for his early attachment, but only finds brief enjoyment and more sorrow, arguably because of the fundamental power differentials between Heian men and women.

Murasaki is perhaps analogous to a combination of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Her work has inspired imitators, redactors, and revisionists. Most importantly, it provides a vision of a golden age of Japanese aesthetics, much in the same way that Jane Austen describes an England of punctilious social norms and destructive gender expectations. However, like Austen, Lady Murasaki’s cultural critique has often been silenced by critical discourse that is too eager to take her narrative at face value.

Before I paid my respects at Murasaki’s grave, I visited the Genji Museum in Uji, a province on the outskirts of Kyoto. At Uji, I found Murasaki’s voice strangely silenced. The very name of the museum reflected my uneasiness with the museum: Lady Murasaki had been eclipsed by her own character. In the main room of the museum, I noticed that the largest amount of space was not dedicated to Murasaki’s rebellious act of composition, but rather to a famous scene in which Genji peers through a window and falls in love a prospective mistress.

The implications of the museum puzzled me as I deciphered the bus schedule that explained how to get to the intersection where Murasaki’s grave was hidden. After riding past a seemingly endless procession of concrete supermarkets and crowded, elegant wooden houses, I disembarked in a grey and unremarkable part of town. I walked parallel to the road, following a white brick wall until I arrived at the inconspicuous opening that led to Murasaki’s grave. When I passed through the entrance, I noticed a shrine with offerings of purple mochi. A few English words were painted on a decaying cedar sign next to a small shack that contained a broom, construction paper, and a few novels in Japanese. The bare brick walls that enclosed Murasaki’s sepulcher only marked about ten square feet, but the presence a few nodding willows made her gravesite seem more comforting than dreary. In a corner, a swarm of black ants overwhelmed a discarded bucket of KFC chicken.

When you’re standing before the grave of someone who died in 1014 A. D., it’s impossible to distract yourself from thoughts about time. When I sat down next to the overturned bucket of KFC, I couldn’t help wondering at the strangeness of my being there, and of how intelligible her concern with memory, desire, and loss was to me.

This is not to say that the symbolic architecture of the Genji is in any way completely recoverable. In Heian aesthetics, objects, places, or acts acquire explicit significance: Ikutama Shrine might connote a certain historical suicide, or Lake Biwa might bring to mind the composition of a specific poem; a species of wisteria might call forth a certain type of filial sadness, or a glint of moonlight might indicate stoic resignation. As a result, other, more obscure significations are perhaps more likely to be lost in the translation from ancient Japanese to English.

In the absence of a specific knowledge of the exact meanings of specific symbols, Murasaki’s rhythms of information becomes the strongest patterns by which to read a translation of the Tale of Genji. Although Murasaki’s novel is embedded in the archaic and irrecoverable symbolism of Heian aesthetics, I suspect that she would appreciate the instances of the expansion and contraction of time that organize my memories of Japan. For example, the memory of the twenty-four hours I spent on the plane to Japan has vanished, but the thought of a certain bird call that I heard one morning outside my hostel window still appears in some of my dreams.

In the Tale of Genji, there is a particularly interesting moment that occurs after Prince Genji awakes from spending the night with one of his lovers who is of inferior social standing:

Toward dawn [Genji] was awakened by plebeian voices in the shabby houses down the street.

“Freezing, that’s what it is, freezing. There’s not much business this year, and when you can’t get out into the country you feel like giving up. Do you hear me, neighbor?”

From this direction and that there came the faint thump of fulling hammers against the coarse cloth; and mingled with it—these were sounds to call forth the deepest emotions—were the calls of geese flying overhead. He slid a door open and they looked out. They had been lying near the veranda. There were tasteful clumps of black bamboo just outside and the dew shone as in more familiar places. Autumn insects sang busily, as if only inches from an ear used to wall crickets at considerable distances. It was all very clamorous, and also rather wonderful. Countless details could be overlooked in the singleness of his affection for the girl. (67)


Up to this point, Murasaki has dealt with time with broad strokes, allowing entire decades to pass by in a few pages; Prince Genji’s definitive trauma, for instance, occupies a single chapter. Moreover, Murasaki’s narrative has exclusively depicted the Heian aristocracy—this is the first time she has described a laborer in her text. This sudden focus on a particular detail of city life thus signifies a tremendous breaking of the aesthetic pattern that Murasaki has established. That moment and others like it suggest how a sudden swerving in our lives—caused perhaps by a love affair, a trip to a foreign country, or the illness of a relative—causes us to reach out beyond ourselves, whether we like it or not. At this point, I think, Murasaki’s voice suddenly grows in intensity, presaging the poignant lyricism that characterizes the later chapters of the Genji.

After a while, my legs fell asleep on the hard dirt of Murasaki’s grave. As the ants continued to carry off particles of fried chicken, I stared at them and suspected that I wouldn’t be able to forget them in all of their seemingly pointless detail. After waiting for fifteen minutes at the entrance to the grave, I noticed that the bus to get back to where I was staying had arrived beside me. I stepped on, suddenly awaking to a crowded, silent sea of faces and elbows.

Works Cited: Shikibu, Murasaki, and Edward Seidensticker. The Tale of Genji. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1976. Print.


H. P. Blanton is graduate student in the English Department at UNCW, and is originally from Bakersfield, CA. His hobbies include playing go and listening to Katy Perry interviews.


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