Friday, February 05, 2010

'Pillow Book' Friday: Week One

Welcome to the first 'Pillow Book' Friday, as we begin our leisurely read-along of the writings of Sei Shōnagon. As The Pillow Book was written approximately 1000 years ago, no original manuscript survives and there are a few versions now in existence. This means that depending on the translation and the reference version used, some sections are either missing or presented in a different order. For this read-along, and in terms of the schedule, we are following the McKinney translation [Penguin Classics, ISBN: 978-0140448061]. However, since I know some of you are reading the Morris version, and so that you can still follow along, I have copied the first line, or two, of each section of the McKinney translation, and included the corresponding entries from the Morris translation, when available. The page numbers for the Morris translation refer to the Columbia University Press edition [ISBN: 978-0231073370], although I believe it was also published by Penguin previously.

The Pillow Book The Pillow Book

This will be my second time reading The Pillow Book. I read the Morris translation a few years ago and I'm really looking forward to reading it again, this time with the new McKinney translation. As you know, the first line of The Pillow Book is where I got the name for my blog. Besides being from a Japanese book (I was looking for a bookish AND Japanese theme), one of the main reasons that I chose it was because I like to think that if Sei Shōnagon were alive today she would most certainly have a blog, and a fun, amusing blog to read it would be too. One that I can only aspire to! I look forward to seeing if, by the end of the book, you agree with me.

I won't necessarily ask questions each week, but since we've just begun here are a few to get us started:
What is your first impression of Sei Shōnagon?
Are you reading the Notes that go along with each section? If so, are you finding them interesting/informative?
Are you looking forward to reading on?
Even just reading the short excerpts included below, what do you think of the different translations, in terms of style, and readability?
Let me know if you'd like me to transcribe more of any section to compare. I have both books so it's no problem.

And as always, feel free to ask questions on any aspect of the culture, or time period, or whatever, that you have, and simply let us know what you thought of the week's reading.

Makura no Soshi
Image © National Diet Library, Japan


[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.

Morris (1): In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them. (p. 21)

[2] Times of year - The first month; the third, fourth and fifth months; the seventh, eighth and ninth; the eleventh and twelfth - in fact every month according to its season, the year round, is delightful.
On the first day of the year, the sky is gloriously fresh and spring mists hang in the air. It's quite special and delightful the way people have taken particular care over their clothing and makeup, and go about exchanging New Year felicitations.

Morris (2-4*): Especially delightful is the first day of the First Month, when the mists so often shroud the sky. Everyone pays great attention to his appearance and dresses with the utmost care. What a pleasure it is to see them all offer their congratulations to the Emperor and celebrate their own new year! (p.21~)
*In the Morris edition, (3) and (4), each separate entries, are all combined in section [2] of the McKinney.

[3] Though it's the same it sounds different - The language of priests. Men's language. Women's language. Commoners always use too many words when they speak.

Morris (5): Different ways of speaking. A priest's language. The speech of men and women. The common people always tend to add extra syllables to their words. (p.25)

[4] It breaks my heart to think of parents sending a beloved son into the priesthood.  Poor priests, they're not the unfeeling lumps of wood that people take them for.

Morris (6): That parents should bring up some beloved son of theirs to be a priest is really distressing. No doubt it is an auspicious thing to do; but unfortunately most people are convinced that a priest is as unimportant as a piece of wood, and they treat him accordingly. (p. 25)

[5] When the Empress moved to the home of Senior Steward Narimasa, he had his east gate specially upgraded to a four-pillared one, through which her palanquin was carried when she arrived.

Morris (7): When the Empress moved into the house of the Senior Steward, Narimasa, the east gate of his courtyard had been made into a four-pillared structure, and it was here that Her Majesty's palanquin entered. (p. 26~)

[6] The Emperor's cat had received the fifth rank, and was given the appropriate title-name 'Myobu'.  It was a charming creature, and the Emperor was quite devoted to it.

Morris (8): The cat who lived in the Palace had been awarded the headdress of nobility and was called Lady Myobu.  She was a very pretty cat, and His Majesty saw to it that she was treated with the greatest care. (p. 30~)

[7] The first day of the year and the third day of the third month should have glorious weather.

Morris (9): On the first day of the First Month and on the third of the Third I like the sky to be perfectly clear. (p. 33)

[8] The Offering of Official Thanks after new ranks are conferred is wonderfully entertaining.

Morris (10): I enjoy watching the officials when they come to thank the Emperor for their new appointments. (p. 34)

[9] The Eastern side of the Temporary Palace is referred to as 'the northern guardhouse'.

[10] Mountains - Ogura Mountain...

Sei Shonagon Hyakuninisshu
Sei Shōnagon
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

For next week:

From what I can tell (although I didn't flip through the whole book but from the introduction and elsewhere am led to believe), the Morris edition omits the following sections that are purely lists as they were deemed to be too obscure for modern readers. So those of you reading the Morris translation only have one entry for next week (see below), although that one section is a few pages long.

[11] Markets - Tatsu Market in Nara. Sato Market ...

[12] Peaks - Yuzuruha Peak, ...

[13] Plains - Mika Plain, ...

[14] River pools - Kashiko Pool. I wonder what hidden depths someone saw in its heart, to give it such a name.

[15] Bodies of water - Lake Biwa is special. ...

[16] Imperial tombs - Ugurusu Tomb, ...

[17] Ferry crossings - Shikasuga Crossing, ...

[18] Large buildings - Tamatsukuri.

[19] Residences - The Konoe Gate. ...

[20] The sliding panels that close off the north-east corner of Seiryoden, at the northern end of the aisle, are painted with scenes of rough seas, and terrifying creatures with long arms and legs.

Morris (11): The sliding screen in the back of the hall in the north-east corner of Seiryo Palace is decorated with paintings of the stormy sea and of the terrifying creatures with long arms and long legs that live there. (p. 34)

Happy reading!

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  1. What is your first impression of Sei Shōnagon?

    She's playful, witty and interesting - I love what you say about her writing a blog if she was alive today!

    Are you reading the Notes that go along with each section? If so, are you finding them interesting/informative?

    I am reading the notes; I picked this up on the back of reading another heavily annotated Classic so I was in the habit already of keeping my bookmark at the back with the notes whilst reading. I am finding it useful to have them to refer to.

    Are you looking forward to reading on?

    Yes! Very much so; I'm glad we are taking this leisurely as the structure lends itself to dipping in and out of.

    Even just reading the short excerpts included below, what do you think of the different translations, in terms of style, and readability?

    I am stunned how different they are! From the excerpts given, it doesn't seem as if the meaning is always changed (it is in section 3), it's more a different way of wording and interpreting everything, but I am still surprised how two translations can be so different and now understand why people pay so much attention to the translation that they read. I think the McKinney is more readable and the Morris more flowery.

    I remember when I received the McKinney translation from you I read the opening section and wondered why the opening line was different from your blog title! Now I know.

  2. Reading your comparisons of the two translations, I already prefer the Morris, I think. I may have to go find this version anyway, though, just so I can join along your discussion.

    From the beginning, I loved Shonagon's observations. I was just so enamored by how the simplest things were fascinating to her.

  3. I'm glad you picked Pillow Book to do a read-along discussion on. It is the type of book with so many little things going on.

    Upon first reading Sei's entries I find that I love her attention to details.

    I haven't been reading the notes. Just the entries.

    I looking forward to what topics will pop up in Sei's writings.

    In the excerpts above, I find that the Morris translations flow a bit better. btw: this is the book that I'm reading from.

  4. I like both versions. The first seems more poetic. Morris's version is more modern and probably easier to read. I must try this book!.

  5. I'm so sorry I never got back here to reply in a more timely manner.

    To answer my own questions, this is my second time to read 'The Pillow Book' but even when I read it the first time I remember immediately appreciating her wit and charm, and her snobbishness that is so sincere but makes me chuckle.

    I pretty much always read the notes in classics if there are any and this time is no different. At least since it's a different translation, I'm not reading the same notes over again.

    I'm very much enjoying reading this again and look forward to reading on. I'm also intrigued by the differences between the two translations which is adding an extra point of interest to this re-read for me.

    Claire - She really is so witty, and playful, isn't she? I'm thoroughly enjoying her amusing perspective on everything around her.

    I've been quite surprised too at just how differently the two translations are worded. It's true that the original Japanese is more like "In Spring, the Dawn" with the "be" verb omitted but somewhat understood. My first exposure was the Morris translation though and since English doesn't really like sentences with no verbs... well, I figure my blog title is still essentially the first line with some creative license. :)

    Rebecca - I'm quite fascinated by how the two translations differ. Sometimes I prefer one way of wording, other times, I prefer the other translation so I don't really have a preference yet. I'm really enjoying reading her observations again, it's proving a very fun re-read.

    Velvet - I love her attention to detail too! It's thanks to her that we get such a wonderful glimpse into court life in ancient Japan. And stay tuned, she covers quite a few interesting topics as she goes along.

    Harvee - Let me know if you do get this book and would like to read along.

  6. Reading the comparisons makes me happy I've got the McKinney version! :)

    My first impression of Sei is the same as Claire's. Also, if I were in the court, I'd want to be her friend! :D

  7. Eva - Like I mentioned in another comment, so far I'm preferring the McKinney version too. I'm also finding it quite interesting to see the differences though.

    I'm not sure that I'd want to be her friend, but I think that would be safer than being on the receiving end of her condescending comments. ;)


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