Orienting Arthur Waley is a noble attempt to study the life and thought of perhaps the foremost translator of Chinese and Japanese literature of the 20th century. Although Ezra Pound receives more attention because of his prominent place in American modernist and avant-garde poetry, Waley’s translations were actually held in higher regard by most educated readers. But his books were not only best-sellers; they are still respected as fine translations by Sinologists today.
John W. de Gruchy’s aim in this book is to study Waley’s translations from Japanese as works of English literature, situating (or “orienting,” to use the titular pun) him in his own time, as a younger member of the Bloomsbury group, as a cataloguer at the British Museum, as an English Jew, and as a man of “ambiguous sexuality.” While this is a great goal, de Gruchy’s methodology has severely hindered his work. For one, by choosing only to study his translations from Japanese, his misses a good 3/4 of Waley’s oeuvre, including: his translations of Chinese poetry, his adaptation of Journey to the West (西遊記) called Monkey, his scholarly articles, his biographies of Chinese poets, his books on early Chinese thought, his translations of the songs of the Ainu (a Japanese minority group), and his translations of Buddhist texts.
Another problem is that de Gruchy avoids comparing the translations to the original texts (or at least, the versions of the texts Waley had). De Gruchy makes a big methodological point of this, saying that he’s interested in studying Waley as a writer, not judging the quality of his translations. While I understand his desire to focus on the translation rather than the original, this ignores the fact that translations are not themselves original texts, and that they are, by definition, bound to another texts. That is to say, translation is always a navigation between two languages, an attempt to find matches of one kind or another. Therefore, studying a translation is impossible without somerecourse to the original. If you want to understand the translation, you must try to figure out the kinds of decisions facing the translator, and why s/he chose one option over another. This de Gruchy fails to do, because he’s interested in Waley exclusively in the English context.
Which brings me to the book’s final problem: that it is overly determined by identity politics. It seems to me that Orienting Arthur Waley subscribes to the critical credo of the ’90s that an individual is completely shaped by the groups to which s/he belongs. Thus, because Waley is Jewish, de Gruchy draws on accounts of anti-Semitism in early 20th century England, explains that Waley must have experienced something similar, and that is why he became a private individual. But this doesn’t tell us that Waley actually felt the brunt of anti-Semitism (in fact, his family was quite well assimilated), and it ignores the fact that not all Jews shied away from public life. Dare I suggest that, perhaps, Waley was just a shy or introverted fellow? Occam’s razor sits collecting dust.
The other big identity de Gruchy ascribes to his topic is “sexual ambiguity.” However, unlike Waley’s Jewishness, there is in fact no real evidence for this. There’s also no definitive evidence against it (whatever that could be). Sure, Waley lived with a woman (Beryl de Zoete) for 44 years without marrying her, and then, after de Zoete’s death, married another woman (Alison Robinson), but perhaps these weren’t sexual relationships. de Gruchy draws on accounts of homosexuality within the Bloomsbury group, seeming to imply that if any of the Bloomsburians are queer, they all must be. But so little evidence survives (Waley’s letters and diaries were destroyed some time ago) that any sexual identification of Waley is speculation at best, innuendo at worst. This is unfortunate, as much of de Gruchy’s thesis depends upon an effeminate Waley identifying with the Orientalist depiction of a “feminine” East.
If one wishes to learn about Arthur Waley, the best place to turn is still Madly Singing in the Mountains, a collection of anecdotes about Waley, along with a selection of his work. Although this volume is a bit too hagiographical, it at least gives the reader some general impressions of the man. Edward Schafer, one of Waley’s younger contemporaries in Sinology, reviewed Madly Singing in the Mountains for Pacific Affaris in 1971, ending with a call for “a good critical biography” of Waley. That call has still not been answered.