The Tale of Genji

It happens sometimes that, over the course of hundreds of years, a language evolves in such a way that it becomes very difficult to understand ancient literature only with a contemporary knowledge of that language.

Around the year 1000 A.D., in Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto, Japan), Murasaki Shikibu wrote one of the classics of Japanese literature: The Tale of Genji. It revolutionized the style present in novels at the time in Japan and became a smash hit amongst the country’s elite.

Shikibu-san wrote the novel in an archaic dialect used exclusively by members of the Japanese aristocracy, which she was a part of. Because of this, The Tale of Genji is nearly impossible to read in its original format, as even with an adept knowledge of Japanese language, countless annotations and illustrations are necessary simply to follow along the narrative.

It wasn’t until 800 years later that the poet Yosano Akiko successfully completed a modernized translation of the novel, losing some of the meaning in the text, but preserving a very important cultural landmark.

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