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.
From : The National