Desire, Consent, Truthfulness, and Translation in The Tale of Genji (11th Century) by Murasaki Shikibu

In this talk, Prof. J. Keith Vincent, Boston University, introduces the Tale, and discusses why it is worth reading today especially, when the nexus of power, sex, truth, and lies in private acts and public discourse seems more fraught than ever.

Like all books deemed “classics,” Murasaki Shikibu’s great eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji has been read in all sorts of ways. Traditionally, many readers found in it a chrestomathy of aristocratic codes of conduct and courtly poetics, while others appreciated how it models empathic sensitivity to others. 

For more recent readers, The Tale is about the pleasures and challenges of a polyamorous ethics, while for another group it is a subtle but searing feminist indictment of male hypocrisy, sexual coercion, and the homosocial "traffic in women."

In this talk, I introduce the Tale, and say why it is worth reading today especially, when the nexus of power, sex, truth, and lies in private acts and public discourse seems more fraught than ever.

I address these questions through the lens of translation, to propose that these divergent reader responses to Murasaki’s masterpiece are in part the result of her complex narration and the wide room for interpretation that this style affords to the translator.

A close look at translations of specific passages into English and modern Japanese (sorry no Norwegian!) will show how powerfully the translator’s choices affect our experience of the text, while reflecting the historical, political, and cultural worldview of the translators.

As for Murasaki's original, I will suggest that it is the ability of her words to generate so many different, even opposing, readings and translations that makes this thousand-year-old novel a work of World Literature of the first order: what the gay critic Raymond Mortimer called, in the first review of Murasaki's work to be published in English, "A New Planet."

Translations and glosses

While the talk will include examples of specific passages in Japanese, I try to use translations and glosses to make it accessible to those with limited or no Japanese language skills

Recommended readings

Raymond Mortimer, "A New Planet" The Nation and the Athenæum, London: June 20, 1925.

Genji chapters: “Kiritsubo,” “Momiji no ga,” “Aoi,” “Usugumo.”

Vincent’s research

J. Keith Vincent’s research focuses on modern Japanese literature, queer theory, translation, and the novel. He is the author of Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction  (Harvard Asia Center, 2012).  Recent articles include “Takemura Kazuko: On Friendship and The Queering of American and Japanese Studies" in Rethinking Japanese Feminism. Ed. Ayako Kano, Julia Bullock, & James Welker (University of Hawaii Press. 2017).  “Queer Reading and Japanese Literature in the Routledge Handbook of Modern Japanese Literature (2016) and “Sex on the Mind: Queer Theory Meets Cognitive Theory” in the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies (2015). His translation of Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s novella Devils in Daylight (New Directions 2017).


For recommended readings in PDF, contact Reiko Abe Auestad (, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages.

Published Feb. 26, 2018 2:20 PM - Last modified Mar. 1, 2018 8:53 AM