The Medieval Review 15.05.36

Arntzen, Sonja, and Itō Moriyuki, trans. The Sarashina Diary: A Woman's Life in Eleventh-Century Japan. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. pp. vii, 264. $40.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780231167185 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Wert
Marquette University

Sarashina Diary was written in the eleventh century by a noblewoman known simply as "the daughter of Takasue." Although elite men dominated the literary scene during Japan's Heian period (794-1185 C.E.), women produced some of its most influential literature. Japan's most famous literary work, The Tale of Genji, the world's first novel according to some, was also produced by a noblewoman. And five of the six classic vernacular diaries were written by women--the lone man wrote in the voice of a woman in order to appropriate the vernacular form.

In fact, "diary" is an imperfect description of the genre. Women produced these diaries knowing that they would be read by others. The content is only part diary as we would think of them; recording past events and private thoughts. They also contain poems written by themselves and others writing in response. Here it should be noted that poetry was not a simple diversion but was rather an activity central to noble social life. Men wrote and became patrons of poetry in order to exercise influence over others. [1] Alluding to Chinese literature or creating a well-placed pun could solidify a nobleman's reputation and, possibly, help him secure an important position in society. While men wrote in literary Chinese, women wrote in the vernacular and produced texts that followed literary conventions but were open to topics not as easily pursued in Chinese literary norms.

There has been a boom in new translations of Japanese classics within the last decade, including The Tale of Genji; The Tale of Heike, referred to as Japan's Iliad; and the Account of Ancient Matters, Japan's oldest text and the font of its mythology. Like The Sarashina Diary, some of these texts have not been translated since the 1970s. This translation is a collaborative work between a native Japanese scholar who has spent his life researching the Sarashina Diary and a Western scholar of classical Japanese literature with experience translating another Heian woman's diary, the Kagerō Diary. In many ways, their multi-chapter introduction is as valuable as the text itself. They situate the diary in its historical context, taking care to provide an account that is accessible to non-Japan specialists which, quite frankly, will probably help the majority of Japan specialists who know Heian literature only through the survey courses they teach (this reviewer included).

Do we need updated translations? Yes. First, decades of new scholarship has given researchers new insights into texts' meanings, influences, intertextual allusions, et cetera. Even the theories of translation have changed over the last few decades. Second, if only one translation was available, a text would be bound by the idiosyncrasies of a single translator. Third, some translations have only the briefest introductions, making it difficult for even Japan specialists to appreciate the complexity of the text.

Luckily, this new translation of The Sarashina Diary is an example of why new translations are desperately needed. The first translation, published in 1935, is largely forgotten and for good reason. It was surpassed in 1971 with a translation by Ivan Morris who translated several classical and modern texts. He titled the diary As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, an odd choice because that is the title of a chapter in The Tale of Genji. Morris felt that his title reflected the diary's theme better than the conventional Japanese title, Sarashina Nikki. Also, Takasue's daughter was obsessed with The Tale of Genji and often referred to it in her diary. But he rejected the place name Sarashina because, he reasoned, it was neither mentioned in the book, nor, he asserted, was it the title given by the author. [2] In other words, he dismissed a millennium of convention over what he saw as an arbitrary title and then substituted it with his own somewhat arbitrary title (Morris, 15). Why does this matter? The translators of the new version argue that Takasue's daughter did, in fact, choose Sarashina as the title of her work. Whether created by later copyists or titled by the author herself, "Sarashina" nonetheless evokes several literary allusions directly connected to the content that either Morris did not fully understand or, more likely, did not consider important.

Morris was also a bit cavalier when criticizing the 1935 translation, calling it "awful," "ludicrously inaccurate," and full of "quaint exotica that belong to no place and no time"--orientalism being the ultimate condemnation (Morris, 19). He pointed out a few of the more awkward examples from the 1935 version and they were truly bad. But reading through the 1935 version, some of the sections were not far from Morris's own translation. Consider the following example that I chose randomly:

1935 Doi/Omori version:

"The water-rails cackle as if they were knocking at the gate,
But who would be deceived into opening the door, saying,
Our friend has come along the mountain path in the dark night?"

1971 Morris version:

"Tap, tap though you may, oh water rail,
What visitor will come along the mountain path at this late hour
And knock upon my door?"

Morris explained in an endnote that this essentially meant, "Do you really think you can deceive me with your tapping sound? I know perfectly well that no one will be visiting me here (124)." Morris's version is more readable and accurate, but he shared with Doi and Omori the assumption that the author was showing that she would not be deceived by a water rail's tapping.

And now the 2014 Arntzen/Itō version:

"Knocking at the door--
'Who comes?' Only water rails
In the falling dusk
Must have come to visit
This path deep in the mountains."

Like the first two versions, the author seems to wonder what would tap at the door late at night deep in the mountains. But the prose that introduces the poem (not included here), and the poem itself, are somber. They lack any joviality suggested by the earlier translations. More importantly, unlike the previous versions, the Arntzen/Itō version includes the Japanese alongside the English:

tare ka kuhina no
kurenuru ni
yamadji wo fukaku
tadzunete ha komu

Even those with no Japanese language ability will notice the reoccurring k+vowel syllables. The translators point out that the author was making a pun on the Japanese phrase tare ka ku (who comes) and the first syllable of the kuhina (water rail) (158). Thus we learn that the author is not simply retelling a poignant moment from her youth but is also displaying her poetic skill. In so doing, the translators of this version have given us a translation that is not only accurate and beautiful to read but also highlights the "life" of the text as a nexus for social and cultural capital that the author could accrue through her poetic practice.



1. On this topic see Gustav Heldt, The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

2. Ivan Morris (trans.), As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (New York: Penguin, 1975), 13.

Copyright (c) 2015 Michael Wert

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login