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  • Worlding Sei Shōagon: The “Pillow Book” in Translation by Valerie Henitiuk
  • Charlotte Eubanks (bio)
Worlding Sei Shōagon: The “Pillow Book” in Translation. By Valerie Henitiuk. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2012. ix + 312 pp. $24.95.

Clearly inspired by David Damrosch’s work on world literature, this book’s genesis lies in a graduate seminar (“Process and Product in Literary Translation”) conducted by the author in 2008 and 2009 at the University of East Anglia. In this collaborative volume, Henitiuk excavates the culture of modern literary translation by unearthing, charting, and cataloging virtually every known translation, into a European language, of the opening passage of Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Composed around 1000 by a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, the work holds an unassailable position in the Japanese literary canon; and its opening lines are often cited as capturing much of the aesthetic force of Heian-era (790s–1180s) literary practice: “In spring it is the dawn . . .” (as translated by Ivan Morris, 147).

Henitiuk’s volume consists of three parts: a slender introduction, the full array of translations, and a robust set of appendices. The introduction begins with a brief overview of the life of Sei Shōnagon and the particular literary culture in which she composed, as well as a useful discussion of potential generic classifications, whether classically autochthonous or globally modern (zuihitsu, nikki, “proto-blog,” 10). Having negotiated this complex terrain with remarkable efficiency (a dozen pages), Henitiuk turns to the main conceptual focus of the compilation—namely, the links between translation, reception, and global circulation of a literary text. Here, the reader receives further background information: an account of syntactical and lexical points of interest, a catalog of Western translations, an account of adaptations and imitations, a list of modern Japanese versions, and a succinctly pedagogical reader’s guide.

The second part of the volume is the richest. Beginning with a rendition of the “In spring it is the dawn . . .” passage in one of its classical Japanese versions, the section provides no less than forty-eight translations [End Page e1] into Western languages (Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish), as well as two Chinese translations, for the sake of comparison. For each of these, Henitiuk provides a brief headnote, consisting largely of a biographical sketch of the translator; the target language translation; and what she calls a “literal rendition into English.” These renditions are meant to be “deliberately documentary rather than instrumental; in other words, they function as a crib to show what each multilingual version says and how it differs from the others” (ii). This sleek organizational move makes it easy to jump between translations, reading, for instance, all the French translations as a group, or examining a widely influential translation and its multiple relays into other target languages.

Henitiuk organizes the compiled versions chronologically. “Literary translation from Japanese into languages of Europe,” she writes, “can best be understood as occurring over four generations. The first [1875–1926], when Japan was still a novel and highly exotic destination . . . is contemporaneous with the japonisme movement” (19–20), and the German, English, and French translations all evince some degree of influence from that aesthetic concern. The second generation (1928–1966) sees the first translations of the Pillow Book into French and English as stand-alone volumes, rather than as a series of anthologized excerpts, as well as a number of relay translations, particularly from French and English into German and Italian. The third generation (1967–1993) begins as “the hostilities of World War II were fading in people’s memories and Japanese culture was becoming much more familiar to the outside world” (21), while in the fourth generation (mid-1990s–2008) “translation from Japanese . . . expanded exponentially” into a plethora of less commonly spoken European languages such as Catalan, Romanian, and Turkish.

The third part of Henitiuk’s volume provides useful, pedagogically oriented appendices. She gives a romanization of a classical Japanese version, as well as an interlinear translation that pegs sound value to semantic structure, so that each phrase appears with grammatical gloss—“Haru wa akebono” and underneath it “spring [topic...


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