7 Sei Shōnagon Translations by Pinyu Hwang

By | 13 May 2024

From the Linguistic to the Non-Linguistic: Selections from Makura no Sōshi ‘The Pillow Book’

Punctuation has meaning. In contemporary written English, it is the commas and full stops, the dashes and hyphens, the colons, semicolons, that frame the context and the scope of words and phrases. Different types of pauses are denoted by different punctuation marks. Sentences and phrases may be grouped by quotes and parentheses. A full stop by convention marks the end of a thought, an independent clause, but it can also mark the pauses between individual words, when, for example, uttered. With. Gritted. Teeth. Commas tend to denote the pause connecting an independent clause with a dependent clause or phrase, though a pair of commas may also often delimit the bounds of an appositive or a relative clause. Ellipses (…) can be used to mean ‘and so on’ or to connote speechlessness and the act of trailing off (while in contrast the comma ellipsis (,,,), a product of the internet, is more casual and liable to a comedic interpretation and can never mean ‘and so on’). Em dashes are versatile things in English; they’re often used when a full stop is too strong and a comma feels too weak, and, depending on the context, they can also function like parentheses or colons, not to mention being used to mark interruption in dialogue. Punctuation is moreover idiosyncratic, subjective, in the sense that each of us may attribute slightly different meanings to the silence denoted by a particular punctuation mark — undoubtedly, we all have our preferences.

Sei Shōnagon’s Makura no Sōshi 枕草子 ‘The Pillow Book’ was completed in 1002, written in bungo (classical Japanese), and belongs to the genre of zuihitsu, referring to collections of personal essays and fragments of ideas that tend to be in response to the writer’s surroundings. The nature of zuihitsu resembles that of a personal journal, a notebook, a scrapbook of writings: it is casual in tone, thoughts are abbreviated, their completion left to the reader to infer, and purely functional words (e.g. forms of the copula) are often omitted. Moreover, Makura no Sōshi was written in a time prior to the invention of modern punctuation — the original manuscript contained neither (the Japanese equivalents of) commas nor full stops. The reader should keep in mind that the punctuation in the Japanese source text provided here was only later added by scholars. The act of adding punctuation itself is an act of interpretation and analysis — a partial translation, if you will. Different editions of the source text may be differently punctuated. The edition referenced here is 新編日本古典文学全集18 Shinpen Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshū 18 (JapanKnowledge), annotated by 松尾聰 Matsuo Satoshi and 永井和子 Nagai Kazuko.

In the following translations, I am interested particularly in how punctuation can be used to translate into English relationships between words and phrases that, in classical Japanese (but not in contemporary English), can be represented morphemically and phonemically (i.e. by actual sounds) or by having an understanding of the relevant cultural context and rules of elliptical constructions in Japanese. For example, there is no single English equivalent for the Japanese topic marker は wa, and unlike English, Japanese does not require all finite or independent clauses to have an overt subject. Such linguistic differences mean that, often, specific relationships between words and meanings expressed by the Japanese text cannot be captured in a straightforward way using a combination of English words and morphemes. In my translations, I explore the possibility of expressing these connections through punctuation.

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