Interview with Michael Emmerich, Author of “The Tale of Genji”

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Quick: what books pop into your head when you think of classics of world literature? Don Quixote? The Arabian Nights? Why do some books become part of the canon of world literature and not merely beloved of specific nations or cultures? In his new book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich discusses a classic of Japanese literature that also became one of the books that cultured people at least know about. What does the tale of The Tale of Genji tell us about reading habits and questions of literary prestige worldwide over the centuries and about Japan’s role in the world? I wrote to ask Mr. Emmerich for an interview. He graciously agreed and this is the result.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Michael. For those of us who know nothing at all about The Tale of Genji, could you tell us who wrote it, when, and what makes it important in world literature and culture? Could you give us an idea of what else was happening in the world at the time it was written? Who was ruling England, at the time, for example?

The Tale of Genji is generally considered the greatest masterpiece of the Japanese literary tradition, and has often been described as “the world’s first novel.” We don’t know exactly when it was completed, but it’s a little over 1,000 years old. Its millennial anniversary was celebrated on November 1, 2008, based on a passage in its author’s diary that describes the preparation of a beautiful copy – calligraphy by famous calligraphers, bound in volumes of gorgeously colored paper – that the Empress would keep with her at court.

The main text runs to 1,120 pages in the most recent English-language translation, which is unusually long for a work of prose fiction of the time. Even more striking is the fact that its author, Murasaki Shikibu, was a woman – as were many canonical Japanese writers in the period during which she lived.

Virginia Woolf has a nice line in a review she wrote in 1925 of the first volume of Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji that gives a sense of how she saw Murasaki Shikibu in terms of global history: she compares her to “Tolstoi and Cervantes or those other great writers of the Western world whose ancestors were fighting or squatting in their huts while she gazed from her lattice window at flowers which unfold themselves ‘like the lips of people smiling at their own thoughts.’ ” My knowledge of English history is pretty thin, but I seem to recall that in the early 11th century the land we know think of as England was ruled by the Danes. Modern English wouldn’t even come into existence for another five centuries after The Tale of Genji was written, and even Chaucer was born about three centuries after Murasaki Shikibu died.

You write, “Genji is literature that can only ever be read again.” What do you mean by that?

Certain works of literature are so famous and have been discussed so much, and cited so often in popular culture, that it is almost impossible to approach them without being quite strongly guided by certain expectations about what the work is like, or about how much it matters, or more to the point how much it has mattered.

To some extent, of course, we always have certain expectations about the books we read: knowing that a work belongs to a particular genre, for instance, changes the way in which we read it. I remember reading a book by Donald Barthelme for a class as an undergraduate, and being stunned to learn that one of the students in my discussion section had ended up with a sort of freak copy – halfway through, the novel’s pages had gotten mixed up with the pages of a cowboy novel. Presumably there had been some kind of accident at the bindery. The thing that really impressed me, though, was that the woman who had this copy didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with it – she just assumed the sudden switch was more of Barthelme’s postmodern weirdness.

What I’m talking about when I say that “certain works can only ever be read again” goes beyond this kind of thing, however: I’m suggesting that with works that have come to be regarded as masterpieces, the strong sense we have that when we read them we are following in the footsteps of our predecessors plays a major role in the experience of reading it. If you think about it, it’s not at all uncommon for people to say that they haven’t yet read some War and Peace, say, or that they are finally getting around to reading The Great Gatsby.

This is a fascinating passage, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” Could you elaborate? What do you mean, for instance, by “non-readership?”

This goes along with the notion that particularly famous books, books that occupy a preeminent place in a particular literary canon, can only ever be read again. Even people who have never read Hamlet, for instance, may well be familiar with certain phrases from the script or images from film versions. These people, non-readers of Hamlet, nonetheless participate in what has conventionally been called the play’s “reception.” Hamlet can be thought of, then, as a sort of node that connects people all around the globe who have very different takes on or images of the play or its characters, and are even reading or watching it (if they are reading or watching it) in translations into different languages. In 1875, the popular Japanese writer Kanagaki Robun began serializing a version called “Western Kabuki Hamlet” (Seiyō kabuki hamuretto). Very few people in the U.S. have any idea that this soon-aborted translation ever existed, but as one version of Hamlet, it can still be thought of as contributing to the creation of a sort of community centered on the play. Its readers knew Hamlet, readers today know Hamlet. But the Hamlets these two groups knew or know are not the same. The community of Hamlet’s readers is linked by something they do not share.

Could you elaborate on this passage from your book, “I propose that we think in terms not of reception, but of a more engaged notion of replacement…”

“The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature”

It seems to me that we have come to rely too much on the notion of “reception,” and that this term doesn’t actually fit with the way we have come to think about literature and other cultural products in recent years, especially in the wake of the rise of book history and translation studies.

To tell the truth, I think the word was badly chosen in the first place: the whole idea of reception studies was to explore the changes that take place in the ways people understand “texts” over time and in different contexts, but if anything the word “reception” seems to suggest that there is a certain unchanging essence to the thing that is being “received.” The reception of Hamlet may change, for example, but Hamlet itself is always there to be received. In reality, in order for Hamlet to continue to be read and performed and watched, it has to be continually recreated.

New editions are published, new films are released, new productions are staged. And so I suggest that, in some cases at least, we might better refer to these versions as “replacements,” with the term being understood in two ways. First, it marks a process by which one version comes to stand in for another version (we read a translation of War and Peace instead of the Russian original, we read a paperback edition of The Sound and the Fury instead of the less easily accessible handwritten manuscript in the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia); and second, it marks as a process by which a replacement “re-places,” in the sense of “re-positions,” earlier versions of the work, including the (often imagined, even imaginary) “original” (the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace prompts a reassessment of earlier translations, a new critical edition of The Sound and the Fury embodies a new understanding of what exactly might constitute the “original,” or even the notion that the “original” is no longer a useful concept in thinking about literary works).

Would you please tell us about the concept of “bibliographic translation”?

I coined the term “bibliographic translation” to describe the replacement of one material embodiment of a particular work by another, to focus attention on the importance of material form in translation. The need for a term like this became apparent to me when I was trying to find a way to talk about modern, typeset editions of premodern Japanese books, which were overwhelmingly either handwritten or, from the seventeenth century on, printed from woodblocks.

Ordinary readers of Japanese who received their education after around 1900 no longer had the ability to read premodern texts because significant changes had been wrought in the writing system – and when I say they lost the ability to read these earlier texts, I’m talking first of all about legibility rather than comprehensibility. It takes special training to learn to understand classical Japanese, which is quite different from modern Japanese, but it also takes training simply to be able to read premodern writing, whether or not one understands what it means.

Typeset editions of premodern books, which we might describe as “intralingual transcriptions,” transform texts that are illegible for the vast majority of people who can read modern Japanese into texts that are legible, even if they remain incomprehensible. And taking something that is illegible and making it legible certainly seems like a form of translation. By the same token, one might think of something as seemingly simple as the transformation of a one-of-a-kind, handwritten manuscript of The Sound and the Fury into a published book, available at a bookstore near you, as a form of translation insofar as it makes an inaccessible work accessible. The transformation of the notecards on which Vladimir Nabokov was composing his unfinished The Original of Laura into a book containing perforated photographs of the notecards that can be torn out and rearranged is, likewise, a form of translation – a translation of the material form of the work that makes it available to an audience that would not otherwise be able to access it.

You argue that The Tale of Genji’s status as a classic of world literature preceded its canonization as a classic of Japanese literature. Is that highly unusual or unique in the annals of the books generally considered to be world classics?

This is a question I would very much like to have answered by specialists in other literatures. Of course, it is possible to answer it to some extent on an abstract, theoretical level by pointing out that the notion that any particular national literature – “Japanese literature,” for instance – constitutes a tradition of its own that can be distinguished from other national literatures is itself a byproduct of a vision of “world literature.” In other words, the concept of “national literature,” or to be precise the idea that there are “national literatures,” is a consequence of the rise of an understanding of “world literature,” or of literature as a universally applicable category.

That said, personally I think it’s much less interesting and instructive to talk in abstract terms about this issue than it is to actually dig into the specific history of the replacement of a particular work. My instincts tell me that the sort of story I tell about The Tale of Genji in my book isn’t at all uncommon – indeed, David Damrosch has noted a wonderful irony in his book What Is World Literature: Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, which recounts Goethe’s coinage of the term Weltliteratur  (world literature) in 1827, is itself “an interesting example of a work that only achieves an effective presence in its country of origin after it has already entered world literature; in a movement that would hardly have surprised Goethe, the book’s reception abroad set the stage for its subsequent revival at home” (32).

How did Inaka Genji manage “to induce ordinary readers to start caring about Genji monogatari’s canonicity”? Why is that important?

The first half of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature deals with a book published serially in 38 chapters between 1829 and 1842 whose title might be translated A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji). The easiest way to describe Bumpkin Genji is as an early modern, woodblock printed graphic novel: basically, every spread was taken up by a picture, and the text was inserted into the blank spaces. Ryūtei Tanehiko wrote the text and sketched the pictures, which were then finalized by the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada.

In modern times, scholars have often described Bumpkin Genji as a “parody” of The Tale of Genji; I argue that this is inaccurate – we might think of it as an “adaptation” of Genji, at least from Tanehiko’s perspective, but not as a parody. After all, in order for one book to be read as a parody of another, readers have to be familiar with the book being parodied, and the vast majority of Bumpkin Genji’s readers would not have been familiar with The Tale of Genji.

In fact, I demonstrate that Bumpkin Genji – the interest of which lay in its lavishness as a book, in the sophistication of its pictures, and in the excitement of the story, which is filled with mystery and action with a lot of erotic overtones – made Genji famous among ordinary, non-elite readers. This is important for three reasons. First, it completely overturns the conventional wisdom about Genji, which held that since it is the greatest classic of the Japanese literary tradition surely it must have been widely read in the early modern period, and was familiar even to ordinary readers who didn’t engage with the original classical Japanese text through a series of early modern digests. Second, it changes how we look at Bumpkin Genji, allowing us to see what made it such a success – it was, in fact, the number one fictional bestseller of the entire early modern period. People have tended to assume that Bumpkin Genji’s readers were excited about it precisely because it was a parody of Genji; if that wasn’t the case, we have to look at Bumpkin Genji on its own terms, and it turns out to be a really incredible book, especially in terms of its visual elements and its book design. And third, realizing that Bumpkin Genji interested readers in Genji, however superficially, rather than the other way around, allows us to identify Bumpkin Genji as the beginning of the process by which Genji came to be discursively figured within Japan as a true “national classic,” in the sense of “a classic of the people,” and to see that this process relied upon a series of replacements of Genji.

In order for Genji, which is written in classical Japanese of the eleventh century, to become legible to the vast majority of nineteenth-, twentieth-, or twenty-first-century readers, it has to be given a more approachable form, and readers have to be accustomed to the idea that they can read something else instead of reading Genji itself. In a sense, I suggest, Bumpkin Genji invented the notion of the modern Japanese translation of Genji.

You make an interesting claim for your book here, “to my knowledge no one has ever given detailed readings like those I will be offering of pictures in any genre of fiction published in Edo in the early modern period, certainly not of any gokan.” Is Japanese literature far more tied to the visual arts than most national literatures? And does that require that scholars of Japanese literature also have a solid understanding of art history and artistic techniques?

One of the things that makes Bumpkin Genji so incredible is the sophistication of its pictures, and indeed of its book design. Woodblock printing was carried to extraordinary heights in early modern Japan, to the extent that I really think you could say it is without parallel anywhere in the world. And Bumpkin Genji is one of the most sophisticated books ever produced in early modern Japan.

I noted earlier that it belongs to a form that might be compared to the graphic novel – in Japanese, the genre is known as the gōkan. The pictures are central to the pleasures of the gōkan, and yet no one has ever dealt seriously with them either in Japan or in English. There are a few reasons for this: first, gōkan are not “high literature,” and as such it is only in the past few decades that they have come to be considered proper material for scholarship. Second, in order to do justice to gōkan, you need to be able to do close readings of texts, of course, but also of pictures and even of books themselves as material objects – indeed, I describe Bumpkin Genji not as an “image-text” but as an “image-text-book.”

For reasons that have to do with the history of literary studies as a discipline in Japan and in the U.S., scholars in Japan tend to have relatively little experience with “close reading”: Japanese literary studies in Japan – especially with respect to premodern literature – places much more emphasis on the discovery, transcription, and study of previously unknown materials, for instance, and on the identification of sources and allusions and so on. In short, you really do need to be able to “read” pictures and books as objects to be able to understand what is going on in a lot of early modern Japanese fiction, but not many people in literary studies in Japan have cultivated this ability. And in the English-speaking world, the study of early modern Japanese literature is only just beginning to take off. I’m sure that in the near future we will start to see more work done on the visual and material aspects of early modern Japanese books.

Could you please elaborate on the concept of image-text-book?

People often speak of “image-text” relations, but in the case of Bumpkin Genji you really need to add in the materiality of the book itself. One terrific example of this is a series of two spreads that plays on the physicality of the page itself: one spread shows a woman who has been locked in a hallway leaning toward the door at one end to talk to another woman on the other side; when you turn the page, you see the other woman, kneeling down on the other side of the door. The thickness of the page actually comes to represent the thickness of the door, and the two women seem to be speaking to each other through the page, as well as through the door. Another spread includes a door whose hinge has been printed right at the middle of the spread, along the gutter, so that the door actually seems to move on its hinge when you open the book. These are just two examples, of course. More generally, the concept of the “image-text-book” is useful in drawing attention to the ways in which the materiality of books themselves play into our experience of them.

Please tell us of some of the ways that Tanehiko employed illustration to support the narrative of Inaka Genji.

This is a bit tricky without having reproductions of the images, but perhaps I can try to describe one example. Like the example of the two women talking through the door I mentioned a moment ago, this one doesn’t exactly “support” the narrative – it does something different. It involves a page that has been printed so that it appears to have been folded down, with one corner stuck in the gutter. In the upper right-hand corner of the spread, under the fake folded corner – on what seems to be the previous page, in other words – you see one character in the book handing another a letter. The rest of the spread shows a different room, at a different time, and we see the person who was entrusted with the letter in the fake previous page delivering it to its addressee.

This is a brilliant instance of an artistic technique known in Japanese as “different time, same picture.” Here, in addition to showing more than one time and place in a single picture, the fake folded page also represents the manner in which the book as a form is able to represent multiple times and places. In other words, by visually calling to mind the passage from the obverse to the reverse side of a page and linking this movement to a transition from one time and place to another within the seemingly closed world of the narrative, the book creates a relationship between the three-dimensionality of the printed page and the two-dimensionality of the picture, highlighting the fact that it is the movement of the reader’s eye across successive pages – the turning of the pages, that is to say – that imbues the two-dimensional pictorial space of the narrative with pseudo-three-dimensionality. Similarly, it is the passage of actual time, marked by the turning of pages, which pushes narrative time along. You really need to see the picture to get a sense of how this works, of course – and this is just one example. It would be very hard to exaggerate the visual and material sophistication of Bumpkin Genji.

Who was Suematsu Kencho, and what role did he play in the history of canonization as a classic of world literature of The Tale of Genji? You write fascinatingly, for example, “Again and again in the reviews of Suematsu’s translation, it was simply taken for granted that Genji was widely read in Japan. The same assumption could not be made within Japan, of course.”

The first half of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature focuses on Bumpkin Genji and argues that this book brought Genji to the notice of a truly popular readership in Japan for the first time, and did so by creating the notion of the “modern Japanese translation.” The second half traces the process by which translations (into English, modern Japanese, and other languages) transformed The Tale of Genji into a classic of world literature. The conventional understanding of Genji’s rise to global prominence has emphasized the role played by Arthur Waley’s translation, which was published in six volumes from 1925 to 1933.

I argue that a partial translation by a young Japanese man named Suematsu Kenchō, published in England in 1882, actually did a lot to establish Genji’s position in the canon of world literature, forty years before Waley. Suematsu’s translation was reviewed widely, reprinted several times, adapted and translated into other languages, and frequently cited. In the 1890s, it became almost obligatory to refer to Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji in discussions of “the woman question” in Japan.

And one of the interesting elements of all this is that it was happening at a time before Genji itself had come to be widely read within Japan – before, that is to say, Genji had attained the status of a genuinely national classic. This would have to wait, I argue, until 1939, when celebrated novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō began publishing a translation into modern Japanese that became a best seller. Tanizaki’s translation, which appears to have been prompted by Waley’s, and which was marketed explicitly as a classic of world literature, is what cemented Genji’s position as classic of Japanese national literature.

Could you please tell us about some of the writings of Masamune Hakucho about The Tale of Genji?

Masamune was an author, playwright, translator, and critic. He wrote four important essays about Genji – well, four essays that I argue should be regarded as important. In the first, he talks about trying and failing to read the tale in the original classical Japanese, and has some pretty harsh words for it: “Say what you like about the content,” he says, “but the writing is incomparably bad.” In the second and third, he takes up Waley’s translation and says he had never realized Japan had  such a masterpiece. One of these essays, published in 1933, appears to have inspired the president of the company that published Tanizaki’s translation of Genji in 1939 to propose the idea to Tanizaki.

What are some potential audiences for your book? Is The Tale of Genji enjoyable reading for average readers in English translation? What are some of the best translations available?

The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature is a fairly detailed, dense book, but I worked hard to make it accessible to those without a background in Japanese literature. As the title suggests, it deals with translation, canonization, or world literature, so I hope it will be interesting to academics and general readers with an interest in those topics.

People interested in book history and art history will find the first half rewarding, I hope – especially chapters 1 and 2. Actually, anyone with an interest in books and good book design should find the first part illuminating: Bumpkin Genji is an extraordinary book from an extraordinary time in the history of publishing in Japan, and I had a lot of fun exploring it. I included 120 figures, mostly reproductions of spreads from Bumpkin Genji. That alone makes the book worth a read, I hope.

Thank you for your time.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,