Edward Seidensticker’s translation of the Japanese literary classic THE TALE OF GENJI was published in 1976. Written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court, this monumental work provides an insight into the lives of high courtiers at the peak of the Heian period. It’s often described as the first modern novel because of its narrative complexity, psychological insight and large cast of characters.

Two translations of THE TALE OF GENJI had already been published prior to 1976. However, as Suematsu Kenchu’s 1882 version was a partial one, and Arthur Waley’s celebrated six-volume translation, published between 1921 and 1933, omitted a chapter, I’m arguing for Seidensticker’s as the first complete translation so I can sneak it into the #TA60. 🙂

Waley’s version was extremely successful. It popularised the work with a Western audience and is still widely read today. However, Seidensticker’s 1976 translation is more faithful to the original while paring back some of its more florid elements. In an entertaining essay entitled ‘On Trying to Translate Japanese’, published in 1958, Seidensticker had commented:

‘One cannot be enthusiastic about the results thus far of literal translation from the Japanese. It has been responsible for the “by your honourable shadow” school […] [T]he pitch cannot be maintained for long. Most translators will decide, after the Oh’s and the Ah’s, after the blubbering that never seems to strike the Japanese as sentimental and therefore presumably isn’t, after pages on end in which ellipsis alternates with pleonasm, that something must be done.’

THE TALE OF GENJI recounts the life of Genji – son of the Japanese emperor and a low-ranking concubine, who becomes an imperial officer – amid the romantic and political intrigue of the Heian imperial court. The original novel is written in stylistically complex, archaic 11th century court language, and is inaccessible to ordinary Japanese readers. The first translation into modern Japanese was completed by the poet Akiko Yosano in the early 20th century. It’s quite common for people in Japan to read an annotated version.



Asked to name any novel in translation, how many readers would immediately think of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE? First published in Spanish in 1967 at the height of the Latin American boom, this seminal work by the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez was instantly, and phenomenally, successful. A classic of the genre that became known as ‘magical realism’, it’s sold more than 45 million copies worldwide and been translated into 44 languages, making it the best-selling and most-translated Spanish-language book in modern history, after DON QUIXOTE. In a survey of international writers in 2009, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE topped the poll of novels that had shaped world literature over the preceding 25 years. García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his oeuvre in 1982.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE was translated from the Spanish by the great Gregory Rabassa and published in English in 1970. The author famously praised Rabassa’s translation as ‘better than the original’, calling him ‘the best Latin American writer in the English language’. On the advice of Julio Cortázar, García Márquez waited three years for Rabassa to be free to translate his novel. He later said that both of his eminent translators, Rabassa and Edith Grossman, exemplified what he liked best about translation in that they placed intuitiveness above intellectualism. Rabassa himself commented: ‘When I talk about it, I say the English is hiding behind his Spanish. That’s what a good translation is: you have to think if García Márquez had been born speaking English, that’s how a translation should sound.’

Another bestselling translated book that year was PAPILLON, Henri Charrière’s ostensibly autobiographical account of his incarceration in and subsequent escape from the penal colony of French Guiana. It has been described as ‘the greatest adventure story of all time’ and was later made into a major film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Two English translations from the original French were published in 1970: Patrick O’Brian’s appeared in the UK, while the US edition was translated by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels.

Finally, two other notable works that first became available to us in English in 1970: THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN by the Japanese Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata was translated by Edward Seidensticker; and BABI YAR: A DOCUMENT IN THE FORM OF A NOVEL. Anatoli Kuznetsov’s shocking account bears witness to the massacre of more than 33,700 Jewish civilians over two days in the Babi Yar ravine in Ukraine in 1941. Kuznetsov, who was a teenager during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, wove together his own and other eye-witness accounts to write this important testimony to one of the largest single mass killings of the Holocaust. It was initially published in a Russian journal in 1966, heavily censored and edited. Three years later Kuznetsov defected from the USSR to the UK, bringing with him the unexpurgated version he described as ‘the authentic text’. This was published in 1970 under the pseudonym ‘A. Anatoli’, in a translation from the Russian by David Lloyd.

60 years of literary translation

Founded in 1958, the Translators Association of The Society of Authors (TA) is celebrating its 60th anniversary. For the next 60 weeks we will post and tweet a classic translation for each TA year, and name the translator who rewrote it so we could enjoy it in English. Follow on Twitter with the hashtag #TA60.

Ready? Here we go!

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, Boris Pasternak’s epic masterpiece, was smuggled out of Russia and first published in Italian, translated by Pietro Zveteremich. In 1958 readers were able to enjoy the first English translation – from the Russian – by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

Other classic translations first published in English in 1958 include Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s THOUSAND CRANES, translated from Japanese by Edward Seidensticker, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s postmodern mystery THE VOYEUR, translated from French by Richard Howard.