Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Arthur Waley

Dear Mr. Gilleland,

For several years I have been enjoying your blog Laudator Temporis Acti. You recently quoted some passages from the late Ivan Morris's essay on Arthur Waley; and I am moved now to write to you about him.

Like Waley, I first read Classics at King's College, Cambridge; and I followed in his footsteps by eventually becoming an Assistant Keeper at the British Museum, in the same Department of Oriental Antiquities where he had worked for many years. I became familiar there with his child-like handwriting, not only in the Departmental register of Prints and Drawings, but also in the Museum's copy of Brinkley's Japanese-English Dictionary, which he clearly had by his side when he was translating Genji. (Waley's translation of hagi as "lespedeza" must come from there.) I would often see him making his way to the British Museum Reading Room, and I met him in the Department on a number of occasions. I would attempt to engage him in conversation, but he was shy and spoke in monosyllables, and in any case I was over-awed. The only time I heard him open up was when some one asked him at a museum reception about Joseph Needham: he launched into a bitter diatribe, saying that Needham could not read Chinese, and thought that nobody could catch him out. I treasure in my library one of Needham's books (Time: The Refreshing River, 1943), bearing the signature "A.Waley" on the flyleaf.

I agree entirely with Waley's points about learning Chinese and Japanese. My own training in classical Latin and Greek has been immensely helpful, though I tend to learn all other languages, including even French, as if they were dead. My best Asian language is Japanese (modern and classical); but I have also studied classical Chinese, Korean and Turkish, and I have smatterings of others. In connexion with work on Japanese prints I have translated many classical Japanese poems, preserving the Japanese syllable count and (as far as possible) the word order. My prior experience turning English verse into Greek iambics or Latin hexameters and elegiac couplets has come in handy for this purpose. (Waley, in his translation of Genji, chose to render the poems in prose.)

I have recently been dipping into Orienting Arthur Waley: Japonism, Orientalism, and the Creation of Japanese Literature in English (University of Hawai'i Press, 2003), by John Walter de Gruchy; and feel I could write an extended commentary on it. Among other things, I can claim to have known personally all three translators of Genji into English: Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker and Royall Tyler.


With good wishes,

Yours ever,

David Waterhouse
Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies,
University of Toronto

Thanks to Professor Waterhouse for permission to quote from his very interesting email.

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