Women in Translation: Sei Shonagon

Pillow BookToday’s book for Women in Translation Month is not a novel, but a private journal kept by a woman serving in the court of the Empress of Japan 1000 years ago. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon was not written for others to read, but it was discovered and circulated, originally in hand-written copies and later in print, and it made her famous.

This book delights me because Sei Shonagon vividly describes an everyday life completely different from my own, yet so familiar. The book combines scenes of formality and splendor with descriptions of things much more ordinary: crows flying off two by two in the evening, a guest arriving in clothing that matches her carefully arranged flowers, the pampered palace cat wearing a little crown someone made for her.

Sei Shonagon is clever and lovable and sometimes mean and petty. She writes secret love poems and silly gossip, mulls over the day’s conversations, worries about what people think of her, confesses, gripes, and makes lists of her likes and dislikes. She describes in detail the pretty wrapping around a letter she received. She sounds like someone I know.

Rare Things:
A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.

A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.

A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.

A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.

Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it.

Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

I originally read Ivan Morris‘s translation of the Pillow Book, which was wonderful, and filled with lots of useful explanatory notes, but I also love the excerpts I’ve read from the newer translation by Meredith McKinney quoted above.

More Women in Translation

~ by lolarusa on August 27, 2018.

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