Worlding Sei Shônagon

The Pillow Book in Translation

By Valerie Henitiuk

Worlding Sei Shonagon

  • Available (June 2012)
  • Paper $24.95 CAD
    330 pages . 6 x 8
  • PDF ebook $24.95 CAD


The Makura no Sôshi, or The Pillow Book as it is generally known in English, is a collection of personal reflections and anecdotes about life in the Japanese royal court composed around the turn of the eleventh century by a woman known as Sei Shônagon. Its opening section, which begins haru wa akebono, or “spring, dawn,” is arguably the single most famous passage in Japanese literature.

Throughout its long life, The Pillow Book has been translated countless times. It has captured the European imagination with its lyrical style, compelling images and the striking personal voice of its author. Worlding Sei Shônagon guides the reader through the remarkable translation history of The Pillow Book in the West, gathering almost fifty translations of the “spring, dawn” passage, which span one-hundred-and-thirtyfive years and sixteen languages. Many of the translations are made readily available for the first time in this study. The versions collected in Worlding Sei Shônagon are an enlightening example of the many ways in which translations can differ from their source text, undermining the idea of translation as the straightforward transfer of meaning from one language to another, one culture to another.

Author Bio

Valerie Henitiuk is senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia and director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. She is the author of Embodied Boundaries (2007, Gateway Press, Madrid) and co-editor of One Step towards the Sun (2010, Rupantar, India).

About the Book

Admirably rich in comment yet concise in treatment, this study of more than forty translations of a single passage from the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon will engage and delight anyone who has an interest in translation and world literature. Translations of classical Japanese texts have had enormous impact on English and other European literatures, yet, outside of Japan, the classical Japanese language is studied only by a handful of specialists. With precision and clarity, this work unveils the complexities involved in the translation of that rare and beautiful language.

- Sonja Arntzen, University of Toronto

This fascinating collection offers a unique resource for courses in translation, in women's writing, and in East/West studies, and it is also a pleasure to read in itself: a gallery of reflections and refractions of Sei Shonagon's masterpiece through a kaleidoscopic array of translations across time, space, and culture.

- David Damrosch, Harvard University

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