The Pillow Book: Translating a Classic

Meredith McKinney on Sei Shonagon's Masterpiece

Haru wa akebono — yôyô shiroku nariyuku yamagiwa wa, sukoshi akarite . . .



[M]ost people in Japan can reach back to their school days to unhesitatingly recite the famous opening lines of the thousand-year-old classic known in English as The Pillow Book. The sounds roll off the tongue like poetry, with the same resonance and authority that transcends mere meaning. They are accompanied by a little swarm of facts worn almost meaningless by repetition and familiarity: Sei Shônagon, gentlewoman at the court of Emperor ? (the name often slips the memory), mid-Heian period “woman writer,” contemporary and rival of the author of  The Tale of Genji. They also generally carry more private associations of the boredom of the classroom, and the unpleasantness and difficulty of studying classical Japanese and the excerpts from “the classics” that the high school examination system requires.

How far has this text travelled since Sei Shônagon took up her brush, let her mind hover on the elegant and intriguing question of what moment of the day most quintessentially matches the feeling of spring, and pictured that moment when dawn has begun to whiten the sky behind the dark line of the mountains, as she wrote those words a thousand years ago? Surely it has travelled quite as far as it must travel to reach us in the translated words “In spring, the dawn — when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red . . .” In fact, by becoming a classic whose key facts and passages are known to every high school student, it has travelled much further, into the limbo of the absolute text that everyone knows and no one reads. It is written in a language that is largely quite opaque to contemporary readers, despite the years of high school study; a language that is held to be the epitome of classical beauty, the more beautiful for being more or less incomprehensible. (The meaning of the text, the subject of high school study, is attained via rigorously detailed grammatical analyses that often cram the space between each line, and dissected at the bottom of the page in a lumpish literal translation into modern Japanese that makes the heart sink to read it.)

Sei Shonagon - The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book is an extreme example of a work that has lived past its time, and attained the deathless status that writers dream of as they labour over their page or screen, transmuting their moment into moment-transcending language. Sei Shônagon, who may well have allowed herself such a dream from time to time as her brush moved over the page, despite the fact that what she was writing was ostensibly for her eyes alone, would recognize almost nothing of what her work has become for most modern readers. Hers is a version of the fate shared, of course, by all writers of “the great classics,” and perhaps it’s foolish to pause too long in sympathy with a writer who is still revered a thousand years later, even if that reverence is such a sad travesty of what she hoped her readers would experience. We know, after all, that the work is the property of the reader not the writer — who, after a thousand years and the thousand deaths that classic status has dealt to what for a moment was ‘her’ text, surely has long since relinquished any right to be consulted … And yet, when it came to translating The Pillow Book, the ironies of its classic status suddenly became acute. Sei Shônagon is in fact still very much alive and asserting herself, at the very centre of her work. Without the vividness of her personality, the words turn to dust. It was she herself I realized I must translate, quite as much as “the text.”

I’d followed a version of the same hard road that Japanese high school students walk, when I first learned to read the classical language Sei Shônagon wrote in — ploughing through the grammar, laboriously looking up the words, stumbling along through the sinuous sentences wrenching the meanings from them by force of effort, and grateful to the lifeless modern Japanese transliteration for helping me to untangle it all. But this is what you do when you learn any language, after all, and the first skill a translator must master is to transcend this groaning process and attempt to perform the linguistic magic that will somehow lift the breathing life of a sentence, of a work, whole into another language. Where the student’s work stops, the translator’s work begins. In this sense, the fact that the language is an ancient one that at times resists even the expertise of scholars is neither here nor there. For the translator, the process is the same whatever the language’s age and difficulty — you read, you grasp, and you re-express as best you can. The struggles you have had with the text are entirely your own affair. A translation from an old and resistant language must read as easily and well as one from the hand of a contemporary writer. Whatever I chose to do with The Pillow Book, it would surely be unthinkable folly to try in any way to suggest in my translation the experience a modern Japanese reader has in reading it (although such a parody might be fun to attempt, in fact).

But matters aren’t quite as simple as this, of course. If it’s a modern language you’re working from, and particularly if it’s a contemporary and European one, the translation problems faced are for the most part fairly subtle ones on both the linguistic and what might be called the socio-linguistic level. We all speak from broadly the same sorts of experiences, out of similar apprehensions of a mutually comprehensible world. Our languages say fundamentally the same sorts of things about world and experience. But a translator of ancient Sumerian, or even of medieval Latin, of course can face huge problems resulting from the need to bridge whole worlds in the process of translation. The language may be transparently simple, what it says may have seemed utterly unexceptional to its intended readers, but to carry the meaning, the whole meaning, over into a modern language such as ours is next to impossible, and scholars must labour with the full panoply of supporting textual apparatus to do it. How do you attempt a ‘literary’ rather than strictly scholarly translation of such a text? And just what is it that you’re trying to reproduce in the act of translating? Do you want, if you can, to induce in your reader the illusion of the kind of familiarity that this text once had for its original readers of a thousand years ago? And how do you dare to presume to know, after all, just what the text would have felt like for them, just what effect this word or that would have had? The language is dead. You have never experienced how it worked for its speakers, nor the world it expressed. You find yourself, translator though you are, irredeemably stuck at the level of the struggling student — consulting reference books, straining to grasp, peering into this other world of distant and difficult meanings through chinks in the wall of opaque language.

The easy way out is to follow the fashion and ‘de-familiarize.’ If it reads strangely to our sensibility, let it be strange. The Pillow Book was written in a language and for a world in many ways unimaginably foreign to us — if your readers choose to travel to that world, let them taste the foreignness of it and its language. Refuse the urge to domesticate and tame this wonderful wild text that resists the translator’s hand so defiantly…

And yet, for all the insurmountable problems of translating an ancient ‘classic’ text, I came back again and again to the undeniable fact that there inhabiting The Pillow Book is Sei Shônagon, her voice as vivid as the day she wrote her words, her sense of the world coming as compellingly off the page as that of some contemporary woman diarist. This is the achievement of The Pillow Book, surely the real reason for its classic status, and I knew that it must be this that the translation engaged with as its primary focus.

Admittedly, The Pillow Book is a rather special case. It’s a genre-bending miscellany of short, largely unrelated pieces, which fall into three main categories — narratives (mostly of events Sei experienced during her time at court), thoughts and opinions on various matters, and the famous lists (“Things That Make The Heart Beat Faster,” “Occasions When Time Drags By” etc.). These categories tend to blend into each other, so that something that begins as a list might shift to more general opinion and perhaps move on to an illustrative narrative. The division into sections is the result of often arbitrary decisions by later editors. The original text seems to have been written, and presumably read, as a seamless flow, very like the flow of consciousness that results from keeping a continuous journal of spontaneous thoughts. Indeed the journal is the written form and style that the work most resembles. It has all the intimacy and impulsiveness of a journal, and its voice is the journal voice — unselfconsciously directed to a familiar other who is and is not a version of the self.

At the end of the work, Sei tells how this private writing of hers was accidentally exposed to the world when she inadvertently left it on a cushion she put out for a visiting guest, who eagerly carried it off despite her pleas; but there is ample evidence in the work that she was well aware of an audience of others at court. Unlike many journals, and unlike the diaries of other court ladies of the period, Sei does not indulge in any soul-searching. It’s the world she’s interested in, and her focus is what does and doesn’t delight one about the world. The directness and intimacy of voice, the lack of a diarist’s self-absorption, and the assumption that the delight she speaks of will be understood and shared by an unspecified ‘you,’ move the work far in the direction of a kind of conversation with the reader. Journal writing can tend to a literary style and tone, but in most of The Pillow Book Sei is not attempting to be literary. She is engaging you, face to face across the centuries, assuming your familiarity with her and her world, compelling you to nod and smile. She is talking to you, with the full force of her forceful and engaging personality.

When this became clear to me, I had to radically re-consider the language of the translation. Heian period Japanese such as Sei wrote is held to be the height of elegant beauty, a quality intimately related to its classic status. When students learn ‘classical Japanese,’ it is Heian Japanese that they study, despite all the other versions of pre-modern Japanese that existed before and after this brief period. But scholars agree that Heian Japan had not yet evolved for itself a written language distinct from the spoken language, and the conclusion must therefore be that Sei was writing more or less precisely as she would speak. Being a court lady, she would not of course use language that was positively inelegant, but it was clear to me that, to be true to both the tone and style of the work, it should be translated into spoken English. An elegant literary classic was not what Sei intended her work to be, and it must be Sei herself, that voice, that I translated, not her classic status. If at times she descends to the downright colloquial, so be it.

It was pleasant to feel as I worked that I was liberating Sei Shônagon from the accumulated burden of the centuries of reverence that had muffled her almost to inaudibility. For all the linguistic and socio-linguistic difficulties of comprehending just what it was she was saying, the timbre of Sei’s voice soon became as clear to me as if she were sitting by my shoulder. Whether I have succeeded in reproducing it convincingly in English remains for readers to decide. It was certainly intriguing, when at the end of my task I finally allowed myself to look at Ivan Morris’s previous translation of The Pillow Book, to discover how differently Sei emerges there. She was clearly a voice in Morris’s ear too, but it was as an elegant and opinionated lady diarist that he heard her. For both of us, the problems on the textual level were the mere background to the compelling and difficult task of giving her voice.

It wasn’t until I had finished and sent off my translation that I looked at the notorious translation of this work into modern Japanese by Hashimoto Osamu. “You’ll probably hate this,” my friend said as he handed it to me. Hashimoto has transformed The Pillow Book into the breathless babble of an excitable young contemporary Japanese girl. (“Dawn is like just sooo spring!” etc.) In his preface he makes exactly my point — that what Sei wrote is talk, not written or literary language, and that it’s a crying shame that her classic status and our conviction that Heian Japanese is ‘beautiful’ have meant that readers have ceased to be able to hear her. He claims, tongue-in-cheek, that Sei had to wait for a thousand years before 21st century girl-babble evolved as a language that could finally express her essence. His Pillow Book is certainly excruciating reading for anyone who isn’t a contemporary Japanese girl, and reduces Sei’s subtleties of perception and expression to tedious cliché, but it does capture the delight, and the vividness of voice and personality, that are the essential experience of reading The Pillow Book. She isn’t my Sei Shônagon, and she certainly isn’t Ivan Morris’s, but she’s a Sei Shônagon who makes a lot of people nod and smile, and this is enough to prove the translation a success, surely. Furthermore, the popularity (mixed with considerable outrage) of Hashimoto’s translation suggests the truth of what every translator wants to believe — that translating can sometimes achieve for a work what the work cannot achieve for itself. Particularly, perhaps, if that work is a classic.


Excerpts from The Pillow Book


[1] In spring, the dawn — when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.
In summer, the night — moonlit nights, of course, but also at the dark of the moon, it’s beautiful when fireflies are dancing everywhere in a mazy flight. And it’s delightful too to see just one or two fly through the darkness, glowing softly. Rain falling on a summer night is also lovely.

In autumn, the evening — the blazing sun has sunk very close to the mountain rim, and now even the crows, in threes and fours or twos and threes, hurrying to their roost, are a moving sight. Still more enchanting is the sight of a string of wild geese in the distant sky, very tiny. And oh how inexpressible, when the sun has sunk, to hear in the growing darkness the wind, and the song of autumn insects.

In winter, the early morning — if snow is falling, of course, it’s unutterably delightful, but it’s perfect too if there’s a pure white frost, or even just when it’s very cold, and they hasten to build up the fires in the braziers and carry in fresh charcoal. But it’s unpleasant, as the day draws on and the air grows warmer, how the brazier fire dies down to white ash.



[69] Summer provides the most delightful setting for a secret assignation. The nights are so very short that dawn breaks before you’ve slept. Everything has been left open all night, and there’s a lovely cool feel to the expansive view. The lovers still have a little more they must say to each other. As they sit there murmuring endearments, they’re startled into a sudden panicky sensation of exposure by the loud caw of a passing crow — a delightful moment.

Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold night when you’re lying there listening, snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such a deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried. And the way a cock will crow first with its beak still hidden under its wing, in a muffled cry that sounds deep in the far distance, but with the growing light its cry will seem to move closer — that’s also lovely.



[90] Infuriating things — Thinking of one or two changes in the wording after you’ve sent a message to someone, or written and sent off a reply to someone’s message. Having hurriedly sewn something, you’re rather pleased with how nicely you’ve done it — but then when you come to pull out the needle, you find that you forgot to knot the thread when you began. It’s also infuriating to discover you’ve sewn something inside out.

I remember an occasion while Her Majesty was staying in the Southern Residence, when she announced that some clothes were urgently needed, and ordered us all to set to and sew them then and there. She handed out the pieces of robe, and we all gathered at the front of the building and set to work, each on her separate piece. We looked quite crazed, everyone sewing away furiously to see who could do the most, each of us seated on her own and all facing in different directions.

Nurse Myôbu raced through her sewing and put down the finished work. However, just as she was in the act of tying off the thread she realized that she’d stitched one of the sleeve pieces together the wrong way round. She flung it down in a panic and rose to her feet, but when her piece was put together with the back section the mistake was discovered. We made great fun of her for this, and told her she had to hurry and re-do it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Why should I re-sew it just because I find I’ve sewed it up wrongly?’ she demanded. ‘If it’s figured cloth or something then you can tell what’s back and front, and it would be fair to make anyone who hadn’t looked re-sew it in that case, but this is unpatterned cloth, so there was no way of telling. Why should I re-sew this! Get someone who hasn’t done any of the sewing to fix it.’ Well, we can’t just leave things at that, can we,’ said Gen Shônagon and Chûnagon, and they drew up the pieces and grimly set about doing the necessary re-sewing. It was most entertaining to observe how Nurse Myôbu sat there staring balefully at them as they worked. . . .



[91] Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness — A guest has arrived and you’re sitting talking when people inside begin a conversation of a confidential nature, and you have to sit there hearing it, powerless to stop them. Similarly, your lover becomes terribly drunk, and starts coming out with confidential things when he can be overheard. Someone starts talking about another person, unaware that he’s sitting within earshot. This is very embarrassing, even if the person concerned is a mere servant and not someone of consequence. Witnessing the serving men in the place you’re visiting overnight being playful and silly. Someone insists on telling you about some horrid little child, carried away with her own infatuation with the creature, imitating its voice as she gushes about the cute and winning things it says. A person of no learning, making ostentatious use of famous names in front of someone truly learned. It’s also painfully embarrassing to have to stand by and hear someone proudly reciting to others a poem of theirs that isn’t really much good, or bragging about the praise they’ve received for it.



[124] It’s beautiful the way the water drops hang so thick and dripping on the garden plants after a night of rain in the ninth month, when the morning sun shines fresh and dazzling on them. Where the rain clings in the spider webs that hang in the open weave of a screening fence or draped on the eaves, it forms most moving and beautiful strings of white pearly drops. I also love the way, when the sun has risen higher, the bush clover, all bowed down beneath the weight of the drops, will shed its dew, and a branch will suddenly spring up though no hand has touched it. And I also find it fascinating that things like this can utterly fail to delight others.



[182] It’s the middle of a fiercely hot day, and you’re finding it impossible to stay cool — your fan only moves the warm air about, and you keep dipping your hands in ice water and moaning about the heat. And then someone brings you a message written on brilliant red thin paper, attached to a flowering Chinese pink, also bright crimson — and you sense how hot he must have felt as he wrote it, and how much you must mean to him, and find yourself unconsciously laying down the fan (that was anyway proving so useless even when plied while the other hand soaked in ice water), your complaints suddenly forgotten.



[250] Nothing is more wonderful than sympathy — in a man of course, but also in a woman. It may be only some passing remark, it may not be anything particularly deeply felt, but to hear that someone has said of a sad situation, ‘How sad for her’, or of some touching circumstance, ‘I do wonder how she must be feeling’, makes you much gladder than hearing it said directly face to face. I always long to find a way to let such a person know that I’ve learned of their sympathetic response. You don’t feel particularly surprised and moved, of course, in the case of someone whom you can rely on to feel for you or visit you at such times. But if someone unexpected responds to the tale of your sorrows with reassuring words, it fills you with pleasure. It’s such a simple thing to do, yet so rare.

[251] I really can’t understand people who get angry when they hear gossip about others. How can you not discuss other people? Apart from your own concerns, what can be more beguiling to talk about and criticize than other people? But, sadly, it seems it’s wrong to discuss others, not to mention the fact that the person who’s talked about can get to hear of it and be outraged.

Of course if it’s someone you have a close bond with, you pause and consider the pain you might cause, and choose to keep your criticism to yourself — though if it weren’t someone close to you you’d no doubt go ahead and say it, and have a laugh at their expense.

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Kyoto Journal Issue 89

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Meredith McKinney

Author's Bio


Image of Sei Shonagon attributed to Tsukioka Settei. From Wikimedia Commons