Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Kiritsubo, a new translation

I mentioned before that I'm moving back to the US and doing other things, so I've been too busy to get out posts. Just to keep something going here I'll post the first part of an attempt at a new translation I've been doing while working on my dissertation. My idea was to write a translation (or retelling?) with no annotation, but that incorporated the usual commentary into the translation through the vehicle of the narrator (who is always more present in the original than in any translation). Here's the first part.


This was in some past reign, although I'm not entirely sure which one. There were many women serving the Emperor, from the high-ranking Consorts to the lower-ranking Intimates. Among all these women, there was one who was somewhat lower ranking. The Emperor loved her so much that he treated her beyond what her station should have warranted. Now the highest-ranking Consorts had assumed that they would be the ones to receive the Emperor's favor, and they looked down on this upstart with scorn. She was an Intimate, and the Emperor's action made all the other Intimates even more uneasy. Her constant service in the palace shocked everyone.

She had to put up with a great deal of spite from these other women, and it may be because of this that she began to get sick. More and more she seemed to spend more time at her mother's residence than in the palace, and she always had a distracted, lonely look on her face. But this only made the Emperor love her more, and look on her with increased pity. Even as the Emperor he was not immune to criticism from others, but he couldn't pay any attention to it – the way things were going, it was obvious that his behavior was going to end up as a cautionary tale for a later generation.

The men, too, were aghast. The high-ranking nobles and privy gentlemen were helpless to deal with the situation and turned away their eyes in shame. “The Emperor's love for this Intimate is embarrassing,” they said. They knew of the many examples from Chinese history of rulers who threw the entire country into chaos due to love, and this seed of worry began to spread into the wider world. Before too long, it was inevitable that people would begin talking of Yang Guifei – the famous Chinese poem about her made a perfect parallel with what was going on in the court. Amidst all this the poor Intimate was subjected to all kinds of disgraceful treatment, but she continued to go to the palace and serve, having nothing to rely on but the grace of the Emperor's protection.

Why was this her only protection? Her father had been a high-ranking Grand Counselor, but he had passed away some time before. Her mother, the main wife of this Grand Counselor, had the grace of an ancient lineage, and she was determined not to let her daughter lag behind these other women who had both parents still living, and who had such high reputations at court. She tried her best to prepare her daughter for any kind of ceremony, but political backing from a male relative was simply too important. Whenever there was particularly important function or official event, she didn't have anyone to rely on, and she could only sit by with a lonely face.

The Emperor and this Intimate must have had a strong karmic bond in their previous life as well. She bore a child, and it was a male – a baby boy more splendid than anyone in the world, looking like a pearl. The birth took place at the Intimate's home, of course, so the Emperor waited expectantly at the palace, impatient to see his newborn son. He had the child brought to him as soon as he could, and was delighted to see the boy's childlike appearance. The Emperor's first son had been born to a high-ranking Consort, the daughter of the Minister of the Right. She lived in the Kokiden wing of the palace. The first son had excellent political backing, and everyone knew that he would someday be the Crown Prince. Even so, he could not compare with the beauty of this newborn son. The Emperor supported his first-born publicly, but in private he lavished all his attention on the new child.

The Intimate, the child's mother, was never of a rank that would have allowed her to do common palace service. Rather than going to the Emperor, the way a serving maid would, she should have stayed in her own room in the palace and waited for the Emperor to arrive. When she first arrived in the palace she had high respect from others, and she always appeared well-bred and elegant. But the Emperor would constantly have her with him during musical events, and any time there was a significant function he would call on her first. Even worse, when he spent the night with her, he would sometimes sleep late and have her continue to serve him in his rooms, not letting her return to her own – because of this, it's natural that others began to look down on her and that she grew to seem common and low-class.

This was the situation when the child was born. After the birth, the Emperor treated her with even more special care, so much so that the Kokiden Consort, the mother of the First Prince, began to grow suspicious. “If this keeps up,” she thought, “it's possible that he would even make this child the Crown Prince, and her the Empress!” This Consort had been the first to arrive in the Emperor's palace service, and naturally assumed she would eventually be Empress. Indeed the Emperor did think of her greatly, and she had given him a number of splendid children. So it's perfectly understandable why the Emperor would take her admonitions seriously, and worry about his own conduct.

As I said, the Intimate relied on the Emperor's august protection, but many other women in the palace looked down on her and sought to do her harm. She was weak and frequently ill, and the Emperor's favor was causing her more worry than benefit.

She lived in the Kiritsubo pavilion of the palace, the furthest place from the Emperor's quarters. Whenever the Emperor wanted to visit her, he had to pass by quite a few people – and he visited her so many times. Is it any wonder that those women he constantly passed by were at their wits' end with anger? She sometimes visited the Emperor instead, and on many such occasions, these other women strewed filthy things all over the walkways around the buildings and the crossbridges between them. The gentlewomen that accompanied her couldn't avoid the mess, and the bottoms of their skirts became horribly fouled.

As if this weren't enough, sometimes the women got together and locked her in a passageway, shutting the doors from both sides. They did everything they could to cause her distress, and she suffered greatly. This sort of miserable conduct only increased, and the Emperor took even greater pity on her than before. The Koroden was very close to his quarters, and he had the Intimate who originally served in there moved somewhere else, and gave those rooms to his beloved as a temporary place to stay when he wished to call on her. Of course, the Intimate who was bounced out bore a particularly implacable grudge.


  1. Wonderful translation. It reads very naturally.

  2. Yes, I like the idea! Very readable too. The question of where to draw the line when it comes to adding explanation is an interesting one. For example, a reader who didn't know the Chogonka would probably still be left in the dark by "famous Chinese poem" -- it's relevant that in the poem Yang Guifei is basically a privileged innocent, rather than a wily schemer who wants to take the empire for herself.

    Although, now that I think about it probably a translation that incorporated the usual commentary would be better off just starting with the whole Chogonka (den?) as a sort of prelude. Make the simulation of the Heian reader's position complete.

    (Also: "What's a Koroden?")

    1. I noticed Koroden when I posted it.

      It is hard to know what to include and what to leave out; poetic allusions are especially difficult. The Chogonka has to be dealt with because it's explicitly mentioned several times in the chapter in contrast to most of the more subtle allusions.

      I think my final decision was that it's beyond the scope of this kind of retelling to really get into the subtle ways that the Song is drawn on and modified for the chapter, so I just put in enough to at least let the reader know there's some allusion going on.