Henitiuk, "From 11th-Century Japan to the 21st-Century World: Comparative Translation in the Classroom"

From Pre-Modern Japan to the Twenty-First Century World: Comparative Translation in the Classroom

Valerie Henitiuk
MacEwan University, Canada

1.        Central to the effective teaching of literature is ensuring that students are exposed to the variety of interpretations to which a given text may give rise, and to the implications of these different readings, both of which aims can be effectively addressed through the use of translated texts. For the Romantic period in particular, presenting and discussing a range of translator's voices allows for not only the celebration of multiple readings, but also a helpful problematizing of topics such as authorship, the individual, and originality. However, analyzing texts originally written in a wide variety of times and places through the lens of translation can and will stimulate classroom debate relating to how we understand and access the literary more generally. This brief article will discuss the comparative use of serial translations and adaptations, with a view to suggesting pedagogical approaches that should enhance a student's understanding of the complexities of textual production, re-production, and reception. Examples could of course be drawn from any number of world literature texts, but I will here focus on two very different references from my own specialization in Japanese literature.

2.        Because all translations are a product of a particular place and time, of the social location of the individual who produces the translation, any particular reading can eventually come to seem dated in its use of vocabulary or allusions. This is a common spur to retranslation. Further, advances in scholarship may indicate the desirability (indeed, the imperative) of re-visiting a text in order better to reflect its meaning and implications as currently understood. More broadly speaking, however, it is a fact that any time a reader approaches a work of literature it becomes something new. A fresh reading may well uncover previously hidden facets of a work and will often prompt a reconsideration of previous interpretations. This is all the more true, therefore, for the highly privileged engagement between a text and its translators, who are after all readers first and foremost.

3.        There are many ways to incorporate translation in our teaching as a means of illustrating the exciting possibilities of reading. Some of us may already be making use of such books as Hiroaki Sato's One Hundred Frogs, which offers widely varying English renditions of the well-known haiku by Matsuo Munefusa, better known as Bashô (1644-1694), including by well-known poets Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg. Other books offering a selection of comparative translations include 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, in which Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz present versions (mostly in English, but also French and Spanish) of a classical four-line verse by the eighth-century Chinese poet. Raymond Queneau's justly celebrated post-WWII Exercises de style contains dozens of imaginative retellings of a single, very simple story involving a man getting on a bus; the original French has been masterfully translated into English by Barbara Wright as Exercises of Style (versions in other languages also exist, notably Umberto Eco's Italian Esercizi di stile). More linguistically advanced students may be inspired by Ulrich Erckenbrecht's Shakespeare Sechsundsechsig: Variationen über ein Sonett, which comprises a vast number of versions in German of Shakespeare's Sonnet 66. (The first, 1996 edition brought together an already astonishing eighty-eight diverse readings of the sonnet; this was expanded five years later to include forty-four additional translations, with another twenty-two provided in the 2004 supplement, for a grand total of 154.) And A travers le Jabberwocky de Lewis Carroll, published in 1997 by Bernard Cerquiglini, contains more than half a dozen French translations of that renowned nonsense poem. A more recent volume is my Worlding Sei Shônagon: The Pillow Book in Translation, which explores the translation history of this greatly beloved Japanese classic, originally authored a millennium ago. I have pulled together almost 50 different readings in sixteen languages of the opening passage, which strikingly describes the author's aesthetic response to the four seasons. Each multilingual version also, by necessity, reflects the translator's own idiosyncratic reading based in a given socio-cultural and historical location (they originally appeared from 1875 to the present day), and this book thus serves as a uniquely valuable tool for pedagogical use.

4.        Of course, there is nothing to prevent teachers and, especially, students from crafting their own, equally creative versions, and indeed such a hands-on exercise can be supremely educational. I will later in this article detail various ways to use Sei Shônagon's text in the classroom. However, to take first the Japanese haiku as an example, it is helpful for students to think about what it means for a new genre to enter the literary system, how it can affect existing aesthetic norms and open up the receiving culture's possibilities of literary expression. Here is the poem by Bashô mentioned above, for example, with an English gloss supplied on the right:

furuike ya | old-pond ya [1] 
kawazu tobikomu | frog jump-in
mizu no oto | water's sound
This word-for-word version calls attention to some fundamental differences between English and Japanese. Such common source-language (SL) features as the lack of either definite or indefinite articles or the absence of verbal person markers, not to mention the extreme brevity, run contrary to common target-language (TL) expectations. European literary conventions such as traditional poetic diction are violated by the extremely simple vocabulary and images found in this style of Japanese poetry, which also eschews rhyme and other elements that were long deemed quite indispensable in the West—indeed, the lack of stressed and unstressed syllables in Japanese means that it is virtually impossible to write in meter in that language—in favor of a fixed 5/7/5 syllable count. It should come as no surprise that when these lines were first "discovered" by the West in the mid-nineteenth century, [2]  it was difficult for them even to be read as poetry—in fact, one well-known critic of the day sniffed that Japanese verses "suggest rather than state a thought or fancy, and often require a world of explanation to be intelligible. They are titles of unwritten poems, rather than themselves poems" (Dickins 309). If we remind students that Bashô's Western contemporaries include Donne and Milton, it becomes clear to them how significantly even contemporaneous literary systems can diverge.

5.        The translator is faced with a choice between reproduction of the native SL form, which might well appear utterly non-aesthetic to the uninitiated, or substitution of a TL form deemed somehow "equivalent." [3]  As Sato shows, numerous translators have, over the century and a half since Japanese literature has been known to Europeans, attempted to remake these three very foreign lines into the sort of poem that could be readily recognized and enjoyed as such by their Western readerships. Translators act as tour guides to new linguistic and literary territory, and are responsible for mediating the culture of those regions on behalf of their readers. Rather than shocking the reader with incongruous elements, an alternative strategy is to adapt the SL text to fit seamlessly into the TL culture, such as by extending the short Japanese lines just a little and amending them into some semblance of traditional English poetic meter. For instance, Bashô's famous haiku could be rendered as follows:

O mossy shaded pond,
Greet now this nimble frog,
Who makes thy surface sing. [4] 
Another option would be to retain the original's lexical and grammatical simplicity, but introduce end rhyme with a view to marking the lines as verse. For example:
A frog
in a pond
in a flash...
A frog
in a pond
with a splash!
These two "domestications"—as opposed to "foreignizations" (these terms were popularized by translation theorist Lawrence Venuti in The Scandals of Translation)—of the source text could not be more strikingly different. The first constitutes a self-conscious attempt to flesh out the Japanese poem, explaining the understated images by inserting adjectives and connecting phrases, with a view to rendering it more "English." It attempts to give the poem an archaic flavor through the use of old-fashioned vocabulary, with a nod to the fact that the original dates from over 300 years ago. In contrast, the second version strictly retains the simplicity of image via contemporary language. By choosing here to acknowledge the humor present throughout Bashô's oeuvre (bear in mind that his pen-name means literally "banana plant"), however, I end up on some level misrepresenting the contemplative nature of this particular poem. In English, such repetition coupled with the pared-down elements of these lines is more typical of the norms applied to children's literature, and so the poet is inadvertently turned into a sort of Japanese Dr. Seuss. A cautious and ethical translator may be at least momentarily stymied as to how the diametrically opposed poetic conventions of the SL and the TL should be reconciled.

6.        Over time, however, and with enough exposure, haiku have become "privileged bearers of the aesthetic function" (Mukařovsky 2) in English as well as Japanese. Translation has always served to transform the receiving culture, to break traditional aesthetic molds by introducing new elements. Imagism, for example, was greatly influenced by the Western reception of Japanese haiku, with Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" opening up new poetic possibilities for Anglophone poets. In this way, alternative readings that would once have been considered radically avant-garde in terms of both linguistic and artistic conventions are gradually made available. For example, we could today have something along these lines:

An age-old pond
frog up-down-
Among other things, here I have reproduced the original's snapshot-like image and adapted the all-important syllable breakdown to a more obvious countdown of 4/3/2/1. The ya of the original, whose function is difficult to define but which can indicate a sort of pause or closure, becomes in this translation an expression of almost word-less satisfaction as the amphibian breaks the water's surface. Considered together, such utterly different renditions of a single haiku reveal some of the many possible responses to a given literary text and give students the implicit permission to craft their own adaptive interpretations.

7.        Another, much earlier and distinctive work of world literature, also from Japan, that can offer additional layers of complexity and pedagogical possibilities is the prose masterpiece Makura no Sôshi or Pillow Book, originally composed in the late-tenth or early-eleventh century by a woman known today as Sei Shônagon. This sophisticated text (composed at roughly the same period as the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf) remains very popular at home and abroad and has been translated countless times into languages ranging from Bulgarian and Catalan, through English, French and German, to Spanish and Turkish. Far from exhausting the wealth of meaning and stylistic nuance to be found in the source text, these versions helpfully suggest the creative inexhaustibility of this or any literary text and the enticing ability of the act of translation to capitalize on such potential. The highly personal nature of its quirky format, striking mix of colloquial and more formal styles, and ever-shifting perspective has led Japanese scholars such as Machiko Midorikawa to argue quite rightly that "an encounter with [this text] forces us to rethink from scratch our understanding of literary form and genre" (Midorikawa 143). Sei Shônagon's overall style will strike many of today's readers as modern, even post-modern—Midorikawa goes so far as to suggest that the Pillow Book should be considered a sort of "Heian-period blog" (158). Whether described as a zuihitsu (miscellany), nikki (diary) or some sort of proto-blog, the text is in any case primarily a mixture of three types of passages: approximately 60 diary-like entries, 80 or 90 anecdotes or descriptions of striking scenes, and some 170 lists—of such things as "Insects" and "Wind instruments," or "Splendid things," "Infuriating things," and "Things that make you feel nostalgic."

8.        As a lady-in-waiting serving one of the emperor's two consorts, [5]  Sei Shônagon enjoyed a unique vantage point from which to report on life at the medieval court, and to reveal its worldview. A case in point is the opening passage, in which the author lyrically describes what she finds most attractive about each season and which I present in some four dozen different versions. The apparent simplicity of this and the over 300 subsequent passages that follow in Sei Shônagon's original text belies a profound sensitivity to the world, both natural [6]  and social, a vivid attention to detail, and an ability to cut directly to the heart of things. Its great subtlety poses unique problems and demands a range of interpretations and approaches, and a careful exploration of how it has been translated thus undermines any naïve belief in a straightforward transfer of meaning from one language to another, one culture to another. By guiding students through the often convoluted trajectory through which a once wholly foreign literary work becomes domesticated—or resists domestication—we can help them grasp something of the various historical, ideological, or other forces that ineluctably shape our experience of literature.

9.        For example, let us look closely at the very first few words of the Pillow Book, which in the original Japanese are haru wa akebono. Haru means "spring" and akebono means "dawn"; wa is a grammatical particle that functions to indicate that whatever comes immediately before it is the topic of the phrase. Classical Japanese, even more than the modern language, is often elliptical and this line is no exception—the exact relationship between spring and dawn is left open to our interpretation. For the other three seasons, as well, we read: "summer wa night [. . .] autumn wa evening [. . .] winter wa early morning." Much as readers have unconsciously probably always done silently in their heads, translators tend to supply an explicit verbal complement for these phrases, presumably with the intention of improving comprehension and readability. They have generally felt the need to be more explicit about the relationship between the season and the time of day: in what is likely the best-known English-language version of the Pillow Book, by Ivan Morris, for instance, the three initial words of Classical Japanese morph into "In Spring, it is the dawn that is most beautiful" (qtd. in Henitiuk, Worlding 147). Translators have also rarely resisted the impulse to narrate in the first person, despite the fact that a characteristic feature of Japanese in both its pre-modern and modern forms is the general avoidance of personal pronouns. Accordingly, we also see: "In spring, [. . .] I love to watch the dawn" (Henitiuk, Worlding 61); "What charms me; in spring it is dawn [. . .] " (66); or "In spring I commend the hour before daybreak" (118). Some translators have opted to use square brackets to make clear the fact that they are supplying information that does not explicitly appear in the Japanese, resulting in the unfortunately clumsy: "Through the seasons. [It is interesting to observe] how in spring [. . .]" (76) or "In spring, [it is] the dawn [that I prefer]" (109). Others have taken very different tacks: "In Spring, at dawn [. . .]. How lovely!" (103) and "Spring is best tasted at dawn" (133), for example, or the minimalist (but does this necessarily make it more "accurate"?) "Springtime – sunrise" (182). One modern Japanese version even offers the tongue-in-cheek teenage-speak of "Spring is, like, OMIGOD, dawn!!!" (35).

10.        What we are dealing with here is a piece of women's writing, and the fact that the majority of translators have been men offers a prime opportunity to introduce the important issue of gender into classroom discussion. It is instructive to ask our students what they make of the fact that, for several decades, English readers knew this highly personal text solely through Arthur Waley's voice and then Ivan Morris'. There is nothing inherently wrong with a male translator rendering a woman's text, of course, but given that Waley was in various ways dismissive about the text and its overall literary worth, it should nonetheless give us pause. His 1928 version comprises snippets from the Pillow Book interspersed within his own extensive commentary about its socio-cultural setting. Waley famously comments in his introduction that "[o]missions have been made only where the original was dull, unintelligible, repetitive, or so packed with allusion that it required an impracticable amount of commentary" (qtd. in Henitiuk, Worlding 97), but in fact offers his readers only about one fourth of what Sei Shônagon actually wrote. Morris, for his part, faithfully translates the complete text, complete with extensive footnotes that treat it with the scholarly respect one would expect in a book published by Columbia University Press. Nonetheless, he is elsewhere on record calling another woman-authored Classical Japanese text, which movingly deals with the breakdown of a marriage, "one long wail of jealousy by a woman in whom the emotion has reached hysterical proportions" (Morris, World 255). His introduction to the Pillow Book contains the following reference to the fact that its author on several occasions recounts enthusiastically testing her mettle against others: "Her attitude to men, even to those of a somewhat higher class than hers, was competitive to the point of overt hostility" (xiv). Sei Shônagon's exchanges with colleagues (both male and female, as it happens) are imbued less with "hostility" than an infectious delight in intellectual challenge, and her "competitors" appear to derive almost as much enjoyment from her besting them as she does (see McKinney 66–69). While admittedly our author can be sharp and even caustic at times, it is inaccurate to characterize her as any sort of rabidly anti-male feminist.

11.        The most recent English translation, for the trade publisher Penguin, has been done by Meredith McKinney, whose approach is colored by a very different attitude. Her project implicitly aims to redress what this translator sees as a prior tendency, intentional or otherwise, to misrepresent not only the women's world at the heart of Japan's Heian court but also the lively voice of one who is arguably its single most personable author. Again, a close examination of the introduction, which opens as follows, is revealing in terms of ideology and the impact it may have:

A thousand years ago [. . .] a lady at the imperial court of Japan settled herself in front of a precious bundle of paper and began to write [an] extraordinary work [. . .]. In it she wrote about her world, in a voice so vividly alive that we find ourselves in the presence of a woman we recognize as we would a friend. (ix)
While admittedly McKinney's idealistic approach may be charged with being as inaccurate as Morris', it should come as no surprise that an early twenty-first-century woman translator would want to highlight a strong, attractive female presence in world literary history. Looking back through what is now well over a hundred years of Western readings of the Pillow Book, it becomes evident that gender has been a prime focus in virtually all previous versions as well, with translator prefaces and other commentary more often than not revealing various degrees of misogyny, and so some sort of corrective is nonetheless welcome. [7] 

12.        The rare chance to have immediately to hand such a wealth of translations of a single literary text allows us valuable exposure to evolving attitudes as well as shifting fashions in literary reception, and perhaps above all the inherently non-transparent nature of the translation process. These forty-eight Western renditions of Sei Shônagon's haru wa akebono passage reveal the astounding fertility of a work that continues to attract readers around the globe and to inspire such a flowering of creativity. They should also increase our students' critical awareness of both linguistic and cultural mediation and foster the ability to challenge reading practices that may serve merely to colonize the cultural production of other worlds and traditions. In exploring them in detail, we can help our students become more sensitized to the power relations involved whenever anyone, even with the best of intentions, steps forward to speak for and in the name of the other. The great diversity of interpretations is certain at the very least to debunk naïve assumptions of unproblematic equivalence.

13.        Presenting a single text in such linguistic variety underscores the vital fact that all reading masks the SL text while ostensibly revealing it. And the fact that no autograph manuscript of this text is extant, in other words that the Pillow Book has no ultimate, authoritative source, should destabilize an all-too-common tendency to fetishize the original at the expense of its readings and thus open up interpretive possibilities. Prompted by the brief commentary on translation differences found on the page facing each version in Worlding Sei Shônagon, students can go on to make their own discoveries. To set the stage for or, perhaps more constructively, build upon the in-classroom exercise of writing their own zuihitsu on Sei Shônagon's model (similarly to the haiku exercise described above), students may be assigned specific existing interpretations for analysis, comparison, or even (back-)translation. Those with a particular language interest can be encouraged to focus on versions in that language, comparing and contrasting the strategies employed and solutions found. An examination taking the chronology of all of the translations included into account will allow speculation about the rhythm by which a foreign text makes its appearance (or, in cases where there have been more than one translation into a given language, repeated appearances) in different linguistic communities, as well as discussion about the context in which it is received (i.e. how the title, series, or publishing format can and does affect reader response). The sample book covers provided in Appendix II of Worlding Sei Shonagon (Henitiuk 2012) reveal a range of marketing choices, which will prompt discussion about how the packaging of a book can set up very distinct expectations as to its content. And a careful look at adaptations or imitations inspired by any text allows even further exploration of possible readings; in the case of Sei Shônagon's Pillow Book, there is a vast variety of material to choose from, including novels, short stories, poems, films, and music (see Henitiuk, "Easyfree"). [8] 

14.        There are immense gains for students guided with care through a selection of versions of a single work of literature, and faculty seeking innovative and meaningful ways to engage with issues of authenticity, agency, as well as the relation between self and other will do well to use comparative translation in the classroom. An exploration of variant interpretations allows insightful glimpses into the complex nature of any literary text, and helps to ensure that students are able to read critically and productively. It reveals the multiple "afterlives" (Benjamin) that a given work of literature may enjoy in different times and places, and to different readers, and suggests the profound implications this has for reading. Approaching the teaching of translated texts in this way will effectively complicate our students' understanding of authorship, stimulate classroom discussion, and foreground the centrality of translational concepts to every act of reading literary works, Romantic or otherwise.

Works Cited

Bassnett-McGuire, Susan. Translation Studies. London: Methuen & Co., 1980. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Task of the Translator." The Translation Studies Reader. 2nd ed. 2000. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. New York: Routledge, 2004. 75-85. Print.

Catford, J.C. A Linguistic Theory of Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965. Print.

Cerquiglini, Bernard. A travers le Jabberwocky de Lewis Carroll: Onze mots-valises dans huit traductions. Paris: L'iutile, 1997. Print.

Primitive & Medieval Japanese Texts. Trans. F.V Dickins. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1906. Print.

Erckenbrecht, Ulrich. Shakespeare Sechsundsechzig: Variationen über ein Sonett. Kassel: Muriverlag, 1996. Print.

Henitiuk, Valerie. "'Easyfree translation?' How the Modern West Knows Sei Shônagon's Pillow Book." Translation Studies 1 (2008): 2-17. Print.

Henitiuk, Valerie. "Prefacing Gender: Framing Sei Shônagon for a Western Audience, 1875-2006." Translating Women. Ed. L von Flotow. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2011. 239-61. Print.

Henitiuk, Valerie. Worlding Sei Shônagon: The Pillow Book in Translation. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2012. Print.

Hermans, Theo. The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation. New York: St. Martin's, 1985. Print.

Lefevere, André. Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

The Pillow Book. Trans. Meredith McKinney. London: Penguin Classics, 2006. Print.

Morris, Ivan. The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Trans. Ivan Morris. 2 vols.. New York: Columbia UP, 1967. Print.

Mukařovsky, Jan. Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. Trans. Mark E. Suino. Ann Arbor, Michigan: U of Michigan P, 1970. Print.

Nida, Eugene A, and Charles R Taber. The Theory and Practice of Translation, With Special Reference to Bible Translating. Leiden: Brill, 1969. Print.

Queneau, Raymond. Esercizi di stile. Trans. Umberto Eco. Torino: Einaudi, 1983. Print.

Queneau, Raymond. Exercises de Style. Paris: Gallimard, 1947. Print.

Queneau, Raymond. Exercises in Style. Trans. Barbara Wright. London: Calder Publications, 1958. Print.

Sato, Hiroaki. One Hundred Frogs. New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1995. Print.

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975. Print.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. New York: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Weinberger, Eliot, and Octavio Paz. 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated. Kingston, RI: Asphodel Press, 1987. Print.

Wordsworth, William. "Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802)." Web. January 2, 2013.


[1] "Ya" is what is known as a kireji, or "cutting word," a common feature in traditional Japanese poetry. It is discussed further below. BACK

[2] Japan followed a self-imposed seclusion policy for over two centuries, broken only in 1853 when the Americans used a demonstration of superior arms to force an opening of trade. BACK

[3] This essay does not allow space to fully elucidate equivalence, which constitutes a very thorny concept in current translation theory. For discussions of this term, see, inter alia, Catford 1965; Nida and Taber 1969 (Nida's distinction between "dynamic" and "formal" equivalence has been very influential in translation theory); Steiner 1975, Bassnett-McGuire 1980, or Hermans 1985. BACK

[4] The three Bashô versions provided here are my own translations. BACK

[5] Serving the other empress at this time was Murasaki Shikibu, author of the great Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji). BACK

[6] The sensitivity to nature that is central to Japanese aesthetics provides a neat complement to similar themes in the Romantic lyrical tradition. BACK

[7] For a detailed examination of translator ideology in relation to gender, as it pertains directly to this text, see Henitiuk, "Prefacing Gender: Framing Sei Shônagon for a Western Audience, 1875-2006" (2011). Although this brief article does not have space to discuss gender and language in any detail, it is certainly worth pointing out to students that whereas Heian Japanese aristocratic men were educated to write in Chinese, their female counterparts wrote exclusively in the vernacular language. In the Romanticism context, this fact may well allow for some interesting discussion related to Wordsworth's privileging of "the very language of men" in the 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. BACK

[8] For more detail, see my article "'Easyfree translation?'" in Translation Studies. BACK