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Latest translation of Japanese epic The Tale of the Heike is a triumph

The bold adaptation into English of The Tale of the Heike, a complex Japanese 12th-century story, is a masterful accomplishment, writes Steve Donoghue

A depiction of the 1185 naval battle of Yashima, where the Heike, or Taira clan was defeated by the Minamoto clan. Here the mother of the emperor, a Heike, is discovered by the heavily armored Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Asian Art & Archaeology, Inc / Corbis
A depiction of the 1185 naval battle of Yashima, where the Heike, or Taira clan was defeated by the Minamoto clan. Here the mother of the emperor, a Heike, is discovered by the heavily armored Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Asian Art & Archaeology, Inc / Corbis

The Tale of the Heike

Translated by Royall Tyler

Viking Penguin

At the opening session of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto in 1988, the renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss gave a lecture with the reassuringly Victorian title of The Place of Japanese Culture in the World. But although the title was reassuring, some of his conclusions, true to form, were not. "For someone who was not born there, who did not grow up there, who was not educated there, a residue containing the most intimate essence of the culture will always remain inaccessible," he told his audience. "For cultures are by nature incommensurable."

Levi-Strauss had a lifelong affection for Japan and its people, and in this instance he managed to offer a little more to his audience than "we're fundamentally incapable of understanding each other - full stop". He spoke of Japanese music and painting, and of the great works of Japanese literature: sprawling masterpieces such as the 11th-century Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) and the 14th-century Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), in which he found flights of "poignant melancholy" on a level of sophistication the West wouldn't achieve for centuries - works of literature that put the West "face to face with our own points of reference, but arranged differently".

Not always so very differently. When Royall Tyler translated The Tale of Genji into English in 2001, he enjoyed a success that was gratifying but predictable. Genji had been translated before, almost always to widespread enthusiasm and acclaim, and the reasons are not hard to see: not only is the story of Genji immediately inviting, ushering the reader into the elegant and passionate world of the 11th-century high noon of exquisite Heian Japanese culture as we follow the exploits of a fascinating cast of characters, but the backstory is also immediately inviting: it was written by Murasaki Shikibu, an imperial court lady, thus standing as the earliest monument in a long literary tradition of women writing penetrating social novels, a tradition that would go on to embrace such western luminaries as Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

The Tale of the Heike has likewise been translated into English a handful of times, but without ever achieving the level of success that Genji has so often enjoyed.

Now, 12 years after his stunning English-language version of Genji, Tyler has published his translation of The Tale of the Heike and in doing so has become the first person to produce a complete non-academic version of this story in English in decades. Promptly, Levi-Strauss's incommensurable cultural gap threatens.

Heike, which Tyler rightly calls "a seminal masterpiece of Japanese culture", has virtually none of the comforting features western readers have found in The Tale of Genji. The plot is extravagantly multifaceted, built around the 12th-century tale of two noble houses at war, the Heike, or Taira, and the Genji, or Minomoto - both allegedly in service to the emperor and the court, but both in reality jockeying for centralised power themselves.

These warring houses have indomitable leaders, and those leaders have wives, sons, and lieutenants and adherent monks and priests, all of whom featured in the folkloric bits and pieces that went into the formation of the Heike story long before coherent versions of it began to be written down in the 14th century. It's a profusion of narrative, drawn from an extensive oral tradition just as The Iliad and The Odyssey were, only without the comforting illusion of blind Homer supervising it all.

Perhaps something close to Homer, however, as Tyler explains: two forms of the Heike epic emerge from antiquity - the yomihon form, designed to be read, and the kataribon form, designed to be performed in front of an audience, to music, usually by biwa hoshi, blind (or blinded) singers who were to kataribon tradition what castrati were to 18th-century opera seria. The most popular kataribon version throughout the centuries has been one dictated in 1371 by Akashi no Kakuichi, the leader of one such troupe of blind Heike performers. The Kakuichi-bon version of Heike, born of oral performance, has become the standard reading-edition of the work. As Tyler puts it, "most readers in modern Japan know no other".

But this doesn't mean Tyler is quite done with the yomihon side of the Heike; in a make-or-break creative gamble, he's decided to adapt the form of his translation more closely to the rhetorical exigencies of this work that is "really neither verse nor prose" than any other English translation has attempted.

Guided by an 18th-century performance score, Tyler has rendered the text of the work into three styles: "speech", "song" and "recitative" - each corresponding to a format of speech in the work (Tyler rather hopefully calls them "analogous to spoken dialogue, recitative and aria in oratorio or opera"). Specialists in the yomihon tradition will be the best judges of Tyler's discernment here (non-specialists may recall that his rendition of verse in Genji could be a bit drab), but one conclusion isn't up for argument: the English-language version of Heike that results from the mixing of those three formats is visually gripping and far more inviting than any previous edition. Within the work's 12 separate books (and in the Initiate's Book at the end, a special feature of this version), Tyler has numbered the separate scenes and episodes, and within those episodes, the intelligent choices he makes with his different formats keeps the eye on the page as it constantly shifts appearance.

It's one of many preludes to what ends up being an entirely masterful feat of translation. Tyler provides extensive notes, genealogies, and glossaries. As with his Tale of Genji, so too here: his first order of business is to make sure his non-Japanese readers have as much information as they need to approach this work - so ingrained in Japanese culture, so essential to Japanese literature - as confidently as possible.

The strangeness remains, of course: western points of reference are still arranged very differently. This is a brawling, muscular samurai epic of sword fights and battlefield heroics and beheadings. The outward trappings of the action - marching and counter-marching armies, scheming warriors and priests, war-torn lovers - will be familiar to anybody who's ever read the epics of ancient Greece and Rome, although local geopolitics will convey a strong flavour of Renaissance Italy as well. Through all the clan give-and-take (and all the Buddhist subtleties woven throughout the text), Tyler strives to replicate the full range of diversity and human pathos that have so enthralled Japanese readers for centuries.

We experience the sacrilege and grisly fate of the Taira commander Shigehira (whose wife points out, on the eve of his execution: "You look so shabby!" and insists he change into cleaner clothes). We follow the fates of such major figures as the Heike leader Kiyomori (who "dismissed censure, ignored mockery, and indulged every odd whim"). Tyler neatly conveys the vulnerability of characters like the noble Lady Nii, Shigehira's mother, who laments his captivity (when she writes him a letter, "tears blinded her to the movement of her own brush, yet love guided it at length").

We feel the scorn heaped on the Genji commander Kajiwara, who's disparaged by his enemies as "useless as altar flowers picked too late for the rite, a sweet-flag root the day after the festival, a stave once the quarrel is over". And likewise we smile at the oddest moments, as when the saintly deposed abbot Meiun refuses to let helpful monks carry him to safety on a palanquin, insisting on walking right alongside them, until a seven-foot bruiser of a warrior monk growls: "Your Reverence, this stance of yours is just what got you into this trouble. Now, get in." And Tyler's metrical decisions lead frequently to gorgeous little pauses in the headlong action, like this farewell message from a husband to his wife:


Together under distant skies,

I gave you comfort, and you me;

how miserable you must be now,

when life has torn us from each!

I assure you, and I promise

that in the lives that lie before us,

I will be born with you again.

There's no question that none of this material has ever been translated into more effective English.

As in his The Tale of Genji, Tyler's first-rate dramatic instincts never desert him; at every step in these 700 pages, he so skilfully deploys his various verse-formats that a great deal of the cultural disconnect that has always attended this work is bridged.

Nothing in the Heike is likely to strike a western audience as immediately and intimately as almost everything in Genji does, but this is ultimately fitting: The Tale of the Heike is a darker, thornier work. Tyler has produced a masterpiece specifically by staying true to that fact.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.