The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji monogatari) is a classic work of Japanese literature written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early years of the 11th century. The original manuscript no longer exists. It was made in "concertina" or "orihon" style: several sheets of paper pasted together and folded alternately in one direction then the other, around the peak of the Heian period. The work is a unique depiction of the lifestyles of high courtiers during the Heian period, written in archaic language and a poetic and confusing style that make it unreadable to the average Japanese without dedicated study. It was not until the early 20th century that Genji was translated into modern Japanese, by the poet Akiko Yosano. The first English translation was attempted in 1882, but was of poor quality and incomplete.
The work recounts the life of Hikaru Genji, or "Shining Genji", the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, known to readers as Emperor Kiritsubo, and a low-ranking concubine called Kiritsubo Consort. For political reasons, the emperor removes Genji from the line of succession, demoting him to a commoner by giving him the surname Minamoto, and he pursues a career as an imperial officer. The tale concentrates on Genji's romantic life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society of the time. It is sometimes called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first psychological novel or the first novel still to be considered a classic. While regarded as a masterpiece, its precise classification and influence in both the Western and Eastern canons has been a matter of debate.
Widely recognized as the world's first novel, as well as one of its best, the 11th-century tale of Genji the shining prince has been painstakingly and tenderly translated by Tyler, a retired professor of Japanese language and literature. Genji, the son of an emperor by one of his "Intimates" and preternaturally blessed with beauty and charm, is the center of this two-volume opus though he and his heroine die some two-thirds into the book which details both his political fortunes and his many amorous adventures. Chronicling some 75 years of court life with a dizzyingly large cast of characters, it is an epic narrative; it is also minutely attentive to particulars of character, setting, emotion even costume. While two complete English translations exist (Arthur Waley's of 1933 and Edward Seidensticker's of 1976), Tyler clearly intends his to be the definitive one. It is richer, fuller and more complicated than the others indeed, Tyler's fidelity to the bygone Japanese custom of not writing proper names can sometimes make it difficult, for example, to determine which of Genji's myriad lovers he is thinking about. Unlike Waley's translation, Tyler's is unexpurgated; unlike Seidensticker's, his is heavily annotated. New line drawings of Japanese architecture and activity complement the text, while character lists at chapter beginnings, a plot summary at the conclusion and two glossaries one of offices and titles, the other of general terms orient the reader in a multigenerational and unfamiliar world. Tyler's formality of tone (contrast Seidensticker's anachronistic "He could see her point" to Tyler's simple "He sympathized") offers readers a more graceful, convincing rendering of this 1,000-year-old masterpiece. Scholars and novices alike should be pleased. 6-city translator tour.