The Impact of Translation: My Reader’s Experience

Different translations of The Tale of Genji:  Suematsu (left),  Seidensticker (middle),  Tyler (right).

As a student of Japanese Studies, concurrently teaching myself Japanese, I have been compelled to contemplate the impact of translation on numerous occasions, and to consider the fact that when I am reading an English-language translation, I am reading not the original work but a text that has already been filtered through the prism of someone else’s (the translator’s) comprehension – dependent on their interpretation, understanding and knowledge of the work and their skill as a translator. All aspects which themselves depend on a multitude of factors, both conscious and subconscious, including the intended audience, the time period they are working in, personal motivation for the translation and the prevailing view regarding the optimal approach to translation. Historically established methods for judging the skilfulness of an English-language translation have emphasised the importance of a ‘fluid translation’ – a translation that reads as if it was originally written in English with fixed meaning, modern vocabulary and continuous syntax [1]. An approach that can lead to disparate texts that are each a product of the historical context of their translation. In order to understand the effect translations can have on a texts’ affective properties, I read three different translations of The Tale of Genji concurrently (reading the same chapter from each translation before moving on to the next one) [2].

The Tale of Genji is an extremely famous Japanese story, written by Murasaki Shikibu at the beginning of the eleventh century [3], that focuses on Heian (794-1185) court life and the exploits of the titular Hikaru Genji. By reading the three different translations of The Tale of Genji concurrently, the blatant differences between the translations highlighted the impact the translator has on the final product. These differences included how certain scenes were interpreted, which scenes were removed altogether, the treatment of poems, where an explanatory footnote was deemed necessary, and the language used. As a reader, it was the latter in particular that determined the quality of my reading experience. Whilst reading the Suematsu translation, I noticed that several English idioms were used, for example, ‘under a surface that is smooth, conceals a current that is deep’ [4], a variation on ‘still waters, run deep’. Similarly, the Waley translation contained time specific terms, such as blue stocking [5]. This anglicisation of the story not only reminded me that the text was a translation but also lessened my enjoyment in general, by breaking the immersive quality of the narrative for me, the reader. Such domestication of the text is a frequent criticism of ‘fluid translations’ and a reason why many have advocated for a more ‘foreignizing’ approach to translation [6], which would retain more of the original language arrangement, syntax and tone in order to reflect more of the native culture. Translations can have a significant impact on the reader’s experience, therefore, for me, the crux of the issue (and wherein lies the extreme difficulty) is that the translator must simultaneously respect the original text and culture, maintain an immersive atmosphere and narrative, whilst employing appropriate language in a readable manner. 



[1] Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (Routledge, 2017).

[2] Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Kencho Suematsu (Tuttle Publishing, 1974); Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Arthur Waley (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1925); Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Royall Tyler (Penguin Group, 2003). 

[3] Satoko Naito, “Genji Monogatari and Its Reception,” in The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature, ed. Haruo Shirane, Tomi Suzuki, and David Lurie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 129.

[4] Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Suematsu, 39.

[5] A mid-eighteenth century word for a smart women that gained the negative connotation of an educated frump. “bluestocking”, Collins English Dictionary, accessed May 19, 2021, Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, trans. Waley, 61.

[6] Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation; Richard H. Okada, “Domesticating the Tale of Genji,” review of The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji, by Norma Field and The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of the Tale of Genji, by Haruo Shirane, Journal of the American Oriental Society vol. 110, no.1 (1990): 60-70; Edward Fowler. “Rendering Words, Traversing Cultures: On the Art and Politics of Translating Modern Japanese Fiction,” Journal of Japanese Studies 18, no. 1 (1992): 1-44.

4 Replies to “The Impact of Translation: My Reader’s Experience

  1. Hi Zoe-san, Thank you for an interesting blog. You have studied a lot and thought analytically. Classic Japanese grammar is different from modern Japanese (we all learn grammar and vocabulary at school) and I read in modern Japanese when I was young. Art the non native Japanese speaker translators translating directly from the original ancient Japanese into English or via modern Japanese? Either way, translators of Genji Monogatari must have multiple-layers of skills!

    1. Natsue, thank you for your kind comments. You raise an extremely interesting question regarding which Japanese texts the translators themselves were working from. There is, as you imply, a huge difference to translate from modern Japanese as opposed to classical Japanese. It seems that they translated into English from classical Japanese, but most likely they were aware of contemporaneous modern Japanese versions. To what extent this influenced their translations, even if only subconsciously, is a fascinating question that adds an additional layer of complexity. All of this is, of course, further complicated by the fact that the original manuscript no longer exists. I would certainly like to do further research around this issue and the questions it raises.

  2. Hi Zoe,
    This is a great post and it’s an issue that I love discussing. Is loyalty to a text important? Or is “domesticating” (great word and I’ll use it in future)! a text for various audiences more important? For academics the former, for consumers the latter, maybe. With French-English translations, for example, there aren’t going to be so many translation dilemmas but for Japanese-English there are going to be times where the translator has to make bold decisions for the sake of the readers’ understanding (adding a subject to an apparently subject-free sentence; choosing certain words and phrases to convey differences in respect language etc). All part of what makes literary translation so interesting.
    I agree with you ultimately- readability is key.

    Anyway, how are you finding the book? I still haven’t finished it (even in English) but respect it massively of course and have done bits and pieces here and there in my undergrad days.

    1. Thank you, Harry, for your positive feedback. I read across three different translations simultaneously, and I do highly recommend this approach (at least for a chapter) as you can readily gain a sense of how the approach to translation can significantly impact on the understanding and appreciation of the original text.

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