Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Ise Stories

I've just read a new translation of Ise Monogatari, which may be translated as "The Ise Stories" or "The Tales of Ise." The new (2010) translation by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler joins a 1972 translation by H. Jay Harris on my bookshelf. There are at least two earlier translations, one by Helen Craig McCullough in 1968 and one by Frits Vos in 1957, neither of which I know. But this activity raises the question: What makes the Ise stories worth four translations into English?

The book is a 10th century collection of 125 prose-and-poetry episodes that purport to trace the life of nameless hero who embodies the social ideals of his era. According to Mostow and Tyler, "The Ise has been essential reading for every educated Japanese, male or female, for most of Japan's history." While anonymous authors created the book's contents over perhaps a century, Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) wrote about a third of the poems, and it is pleasant to think that the entire book traces Narihira's life, from his first affair to his death.

It was a life—if the book is to be believed—of elegance, taste, and sensitivity. Narihira, extraordinarily handsome and cultured, meets a woman, makes love to her, and sends her a poem. He isn't always able to make love to her, and sometimes he has to send a poem first, but if he doesn't make love to her, he expresses his regret in perfect poetic form, his sleeves wet with tears.

I was interested in comparing the two translations I own. Mostow and Tyler say in their introduction that they wanted to have "a fresh, appealing, and somewhat spoken character." Here is their version of episode 72:

"Back then this man never managed to get back together with a woman in the province of Ise, and before leaving for the neighboring province he let her know just how much he held that against her. She replied:

The Oyodo pine,
waiting ever patiently,
no, is not unkind;
rather, the wave washes in,
looks, then, grumbling, withdraws."

Here is the Jay Harris version:

"Long ago a young man was unable to meet for a second time a woman in Ise Province. Because he was very bitter toward her saying he was going to a neighboring province, the woman recited:

Though it is not true
that the Oyodo pines
bear them any grudge,
laden with white hot hatred
the waves back off and recede!"

My Japanese is much too poor to even begin evaluating the translations. I did feel that Mostrow and Tyler were occasionally too breezy and chatty, but if you want only one version, that's the one I'd recommend—not only for the translation, but for the introduction, notes, and woodblock prints. Ise monogatari provides a picture of a life and a world that is alien yet familiar.

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