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A thousand years after one of the world’s first novels was written, an ANU Visiting Fellow has been recognised for exposing the Japanese work to English-speaking audiences.
Professor Royall Tyler started studying Japanese language at Harvard University in 1954 purely out of curiousity. “I didn’t know anything about Japan or East Asia,” Royall said. “I just wanted to study a language from a part of the world I knew nothing about. I remember narrowing it down to either Japanese or Chinese and I chose Japanese because, at the time, the United States didn’t recognise China and I wouldn’t have been able to travel there.”
He followed up his degree with a PhD in Japanese literature from Columbia University and taught at a number of universities before coming to ANU as a Senior Lecturer in Japanese in 1990. He taught Japanese language, literature and history for several years before deciding to start work on a complete translation of the Japanese classic Tale of Genji.
“There are two other English translations but I thought that it made sense to do it,” Royall said. “The first translation came out in 1933 and was enormously influential. It was a beautiful work and it made the tale really famous in English literature but it wasn’t very faithful to the original text, for which there are many understandable reasons.
“I had more help available to me and the best modern scholarship on the work. It was easier for me to be more accurate. And I also had a particular kind of conception of the work which shaped the style I adopted for the translation; shaped the way I had the characters speak.”
Assisted by an ARC grant, Royall finished his translation in 2000 and in 2001 received the Japan-US Friendship Commission Translation Award. In 2007 he received the Japan Foundation Award for his translation, not only of Tale of Genji but also his numerous translations and publications of Noh plays.
In 2008, the year Japan recognises as the thousandth anniversary of Tale of Genji”s original publication, Royall received the Order of the Rising Sun (Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon) from the Japanese Government. The award is among the highest given to foreign nationals.
Royall officially retired from ANU after completing his translation but remains a Visiting Fellow at the Japan Centre.