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Buddy Reads > The Pillow Book - September 2018

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message 1: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Cam and I plan to read and discuss The Pillow Book, first published in 1002, by Sei Shōnagon, starting on or around September 15. Please join us if you are interested. I'm ordering the Penguin Classics edition today!


message 2: by Cam (new)

Cam | 116 comments Just a heads up for anyone who was considering buying it as well. I just learnt the hard way that there are several translations in circulation and they are definitely not equal.
I originally ended up with Arthur Waley's 1928 translation, which only covers 1/4 of the book and is mostly his commentaries (hovering between orientalising and patronisingly imperialist). I've re-ordered the Penguin Classics edition and so should hopefully end up with the McKinney translation (apparently the best one in English).


message 3: by Carol (last edited Jul 02, 2018 08:55AM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Cam wrote: "Just a heads up for anyone who was considering buying it as well. I just learnt the hard way that there are several translations in circulation and they are definitely not equal.
I originally ended..."


Whew. That was close. I got the right one by sheer accident. Thanks for the heads-up, Cam.


message 4: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments @Cam, I'm very much looking forward to this, but am a bit backed up on IRL book club reading commitments (I know, I know, what's new?). May we back up our start to next Saturday, 22 September?

If anyone plans to join us and has a perspective on our start date, please do join and let us know your thoughts. The more, the merrier.


message 5: by Cam (new)

Cam | 116 comments Next Saturday works for me!


message 6: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Cam wrote: "Next Saturday works for me!"

Thanks!


message 7: by Cam (new)

Cam | 116 comments I had quite a busy weekend so just managed to read the introduction (2006 Penguin edition - McKinney translation), with a lot of back-and-forth with the appendices. I think this is going to be a slow read but I am fully intrigued (sign of a good introduction I guess).

I found her discussion of the challenges of translating into English fascinating:
"This detachment is exacerbated by the fact that the classical Japanese language does not need, and very seldom has, a specified subject to the verb. Is it I, or you, or we, or perhaps she, who is experiencing this? The question will often seem irrelevant, for in many passages, it is enough that the experience exists as we read, and that by reading we too experience it" (p. xxiv)
I've read recently that English (like most if not all European languages) is a writer/speaker-focused language: the writer/speaker has to make sure that the message can be understood. Apparently Japanese is a reader/hearer-focused language, where you can say "cold" and your interlocutor will understand the meaning, whereas if you say "cold" in English you'll just get a blank stare. Although I don't know any Japanese or any Asian languages so maybe (probably) this is all simplified silliness.

I'm also always reminded of how arbitrary some of the translation decisions are. Such as McKinney's pronouncement that 'amusing' being chilly and old-fashioned and preferring to use 'delightful' instead (p. xxii). Maybe it's an Australian English thing............ but it just goes to show how we all make word choices which definitely don't "translate" even within the same language.

Yes, I'm a language geek.


message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Cam wrote: "I had quite a busy weekend so just managed to read the introduction (2006 Penguin edition - McKinney translation), with a lot of back-and-forth with the appendices. I think this is going to be a sl..."

Oh, I’m totally with you in being intrigued by languages, differences in communication vehicles, and language choices, generally.

I also agree with you that, while delightful might be a tad cute, amusing is only chilly if it is uttered by a dowager in a Masterpiece Theater production.

I am reading The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater. Early in the book, someone interested in linguistics makes a point that Romance languages are generally highly focused on gender, whether of the subject, the object or a random bystander. It is not universal — many languages don’t identify gender except in rare instances. The language we choose to speak shapes our worldview from birth, I imagine.

I’ll start tonight. I’ve been spinning as well but am very much in the mood for this read.


message 9: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is a fascinating, detailed account of Japanese court life in the eleventh century. Written by a lady of the court at the height of Heian culture, this book enthralls with its lively gossip, witty observations, and subtle impressions. Lady Shonagon was an erstwhile rival of Lady Murasaki, whose novel, The Tale of Genji, fictionalized the elite world Lady Shonagon so eloquently relates. Featuring reflections on royal and religious ceremonies, nature, conversation, poetry, and many other subjects, The Pillow Book is an intimate look at the experiences and outlook of the Heian upper class...."

from columbia.edu in connection with another translation. I needed to remind myself of the 100,000 foot context.


message 10: by Carol (last edited Sep 24, 2018 05:18PM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Here's a wonderful article published in the Kyoto Journal. Meredith McKinney discusses her translation, as well as the problems with Osamu's earlier translation. I think you might really enjoy reading it now (before beginning the work proper) since it deals with language and translation choices.

https://kyotojournal.org/in-translati...

I loved the following excerpt:

...Surely it has traveled 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 traveled 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.)...


message 11: by Haaze (last edited Sep 24, 2018 05:22PM) (new)

Haaze | 57 comments Oh, thanks for posting that article link Carol! Wonderful! I have not been paying much attention to Meredith McKinney's translation, but now my interest is steadily growing. I have the Ivan Morris translation somewhere, but I can't find it. Those "evil" book stacks of mine! I ordered a copy of the McKinney translation and hope to catch up with you guys! :)


message 12: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Haaze wrote: "Oh, thanks for posting that article link Carol! Wonderful! I have not been paying much attention to Meredith McKinney's translation, but now my interest is steadily growing. I have the Ivan Morris ..."

Wonderful, Haaze! I think McKinney's translation may be the key to enjoyment for a modern reader. It would be delightful to hear your thoughts and comments.


message 13: by Carol (last edited Sep 24, 2018 05:43PM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Heian Period (794-1185) and Culture

The Heian period – named for the original name for Kyoto, Heian-kyo, where Japan moved its capital from nearby Nara in 794 C.E. – was the period during which Japan first distinguished itself from the imported Chinese culture that had inspired the early Japanese. By the end of those 400 years, Japan would devolve into its feudal era, under the military rule of the shogun, for several more centuries. Japan would struggle for centuries to find a lasting governmental form. But the essentials of what we know as Japanese culture that were established during the Heian would prove to be enduring.

This transformation affected nearly every aspect of life, but was particularly pronounced in evolving forms of language, writing and literature; in the structure, manners and fashions of the Imperial court; and especially in Japan’s understanding of Buddhism, which it would develop separate from the form that had been imported from China...


more @ http://japanology.org/2017/01/the-hei...

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According to historian George Sansom: "The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality. It is true that it was a society composed of a small number of especially favoured people, but it is none the less remarkable that, even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste." [Source: George Sansom, A History of Japan to 1334 (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1963, 1974), p. 178] (@ the link immmediately below)

http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat1... (I have no idea who publishes this site, but, at minimum, it has a great many interesting links within which to dive for hours.)

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From the Met, an article focused on the art of the Heian period, and including several links at its end:

https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hei...

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and finally, this site focuses more on the historical and political context than the others, and I found it fascinating.
https://www.ancient.eu/Heian_Period/


message 14: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments On page xvii of the Introduction, this passage intrigues:

The situations that caused her most difficulty were those involving allusions from Chinese poetry: not because she was ignorant of it, but rather because it was considered unseemly for a woman to betray any knowledge of it. The Chinese language belonged to the sphere of men: their public and official writing, of both prose and poetry, was conducted in Chinese, and their education was largely devoted to the Chinese classics.

I’m so accustomed to a Japan that attends to no culture but its own that I’d not realized that there was ever a time when Chinese literature was Japan’s core educational canon.

Reactions? Thoughts?


message 15: by Cam (last edited Oct 01, 2018 11:38PM) (new)

Cam | 116 comments Sorry - I got ill and my foggy brain wouldn't let me read good books! I'll catch up this week


message 16: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Cam wrote: "Sorry - I got ill and my foggy brain wouldn't let me read good books! I'll catch up this week"

I’m so sorry you’ve been sick, Cam. I’m glad you’re on the mend, though. I’m around page 30, FYI, and looking forward to hearing your impressions.


message 17: by Cam (new)

Cam | 116 comments Thank you for your patience! And thanks for all the links, I'm really enjoying reading up on Japan and on that period.

The article from the Kyoto Journal is fantastic ("delightful"!). I always love hearing about the choices translators make in their work, and how those choices are nested within much wider concerns than meaning. (it always reminded me that I still need to finish reading Booth's article on her translation of Girls of Riyadh - she poses similar questions of accessibility and stereotypes) The three versions she mentions have each constructed their own version of 'authenticity' and how they wanted to present the author and her work. The snippets I read from Morris's translation were very sneery and condescending (it's mostly his commentary and a few selected passages as he considers the rest of her book uninteresting and trivial), which would obviously colour your impression of the book. The few things I'd read/listened to on The Pillow Book which were based on his translation were quite derogatory and exoticising. Why you would bother translating a book if you thought it was trite, I don't know... The wonders of orientalism...

Re: Japan's cultural 'self-sufficiency'. I knew exchanges of all sorts were widespread between what is now Korea, China and Japan, that one of the Japanese alphabets was kanji-based and that Buddhism had made its ways from India to Japan relatively rapidly, I had some vague notion that Japan had sought to close itself off from the world and I'd done some work on discourses about English in contemporary Japan, but I had never connected the dots! It's very interesting reading through the links you've sent and I'm trying to work backwards as well by listening to a discussion on the Sakoku period. Sounds like even by the 12-13th century Japan was still considered a 'vassal state' to China (both politically and to a certain extent culturally), and when the Sakoku was established, they still followed and replicated the Chinese tributary system.


message 18: by Cam (new)

Cam | 116 comments I'm now on p104. It's a slow read but it's a lot more fun than I expected. I'm enjoying learning about her world in such a piecemeal fashion, like a giant incomplete puzzle, and although some of the lists are tedious, they break up the narrative and I actually find that they help with the rhythm (although I skim read them).

Turns out that when you're secluded with nothing to do, you write poetry and have affairs. And snow mountains. Who knew. More seriously, it's great to read about completely different functioning of family relations and the marriage unit without it having been written specifically to 'explain'.

Some of the comments I'd heard also mocked Sei Shonagon for being fickle and petty and focusing so much on fashion. But by her account, that is the main marker of social status, in the same way that today we would use accent / cultural tastes / holiday choices / job / race / etc. to differentiate people. In a way, it echoes Victorian novels and their concerns with appearance, superficial morality, social status and constant shaming of everyone else.

And now, I'm off to read some more of these awesome links your sent! :)


message 19: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 713 comments Cam wrote: "I'm now on p104. It's a slow read but it's a lot more fun than I expected. I'm enjoying learning about her world in such a piecemeal fashion, like a giant incomplete puzzle, and although some of th..."

You’ve given me so much to think about! I’m headed to church for a book study and have to prepare a salad for 15 (what have
I gotten myself into) to take with me, but will respond later this evening.


message 20: by Cam (new)

Cam | 116 comments Very slow read this one. I've done a lot of travelling over the past few weeks and this is not a book which lends itself to being picked up casually. But when I manage to carve myself an hour of quiet time somewhere with a cup of tea, I've actually quite enjoyed the experience of trying to dive into this world.

I feel like there is so much I don't understand, that me trying to make sensible comments on this book is a little bit pointless. I'm finding the experience interesting, and approaching it as a historical ethnography (both in terms of trying to understand the world and its rules and reflecting on how much is left unsaid) is the only way I've found to make this work for me.

Not sure what your experience of this book has been Carol?


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