This moment of daybreak, and this singing back and forth

Dear Sarashina,

I must confess that I have read your diary – and I did it twice. In my defense, I guess I could say that it is not exactly a diary, as we nowadays conceive of it; that it is highly imaginative rather than objective; and that it was meant to be a public record. I read it in two different translations: the more recent one, by Sonja Arntzen & Itō Moriyuki (2014), and the older one, by Ivan Morris (1971).

Rather than a daily account of events in your life, your Sarashina Nikki hangs somewhere between an autobiographical record, a selection of moments of personal meaning for you, and a travel memoir. Probably written during the years that followed your husband’s death, the book is deliberately shaped, under a retro­spective revision, to reveal significant aspects of your trajectory.

The book covers your life from girlhood to old age. We learn that you were passionate about tales and poetry since you were a child; that you married in your late 30s; and that you occasionally served as a lady-in-waiting to Pricess Yushi at the imperial court. Throughout the text, we can read some of the waka poems you composed, as well as anecdotes, personal reflections and rich descriptions of the countryside during your travels and pilgrimages. You also add something of your relationship with your family, conversations with friends, poem exchanges with acquaintances, dreams with monks and Buddhist entities, and a periodic correspondence with a nun.

The two renderings I read of your book diverge greatly in interpretive perspective and translation approach. The divergence between the translators begins in the choice of the book’s title: while Morris quickly brushes away the reference to Sarashina as a simple the invention of a later copyist, Arntzen & Moriyuki argue that this very reference embodies your literary intentions with this book. Morris’s title – As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams – refers to the final chapter of Tale of GenjiYume no ukihashi, or “floating bridge of dreams”. As a reason for choosing such an odd title, Morris argues that the title “The Sarashina Diary” gives “an entirely false impression of the book”; “the Bridge of Dreams”, on the other hand, would both refer to your love for The Tale of Genji and to a line from an ancient poem which was based on a metaphor that suggests “life’s fleeting insubstantiality”. Moreover, according to him, dreams recur throughout the book, as well as “the conception of life as a flimsy, dreamlike structure which we cross in our journey from one state of existence to another.”

As much as his choice does provide a beautiful interpretation of your book, in my opinion it is too dismissive of the Japanese scholarly studies on the subject. While the expression “bridge of dreams” doesn’t even figure in the book, the reference to Sarashina – even if we concede that it may have been added later by a copyist – provides an important key to the book’s structure and to your literary intention.

Sarashina is a geographical district in the Province of Shinano. You alluded to the district in one of the book’s poems, in a reference to Mount Obasute, also known as “Mount Sarashina” – known both as a beautiful spot to view the moon, and as the “Old Forsaken Woman Peak,” where old widows were abandoned to die. In the poem, written when you were a widow, and addressed to a visiting nephew, you allude to Obasute so as to refer to your loneliness, and to the moon as the sole consolation in old age. Furthermore, the name Sarashina also evokes your widowhood: your husband’s last appointment was to the province of Shinano, and where he fell fatally ill. As Arntzen & Moriyuki argue, and I agree, the title Sarashina Nikki implies that the book we are faced with is a memoir, written by an old widowed woman consoled only by the moon. Moreover, it points out to the book’s structure itself, drawing a full circle from the area you left as a child to the area where your husband died.

The writing is another point of departure between the two translations. Morris’ version of the prose sections reads more smoothly – albeit highly “westernized” (Buddha figures and illuminating beings are referred to as saints, and monks as priests, for example). On the other hand, his translations of your poems lose in openness and allusiveness, in comparison to Arntzen & Moriyuki’s versions, and show disregard for the waka structure. Trying to justify his poor translation of the poems, Morris mentions Arthur Waley’s assessment of “the peculiar resistance of Japanese classical poetry to translation”: “It is not possible that the rest of the world will ever realize the importance of Japanese poetry, because of all poetries it is the most completely untranslatable. Its beauty consists in the perfection with which a thought and a body of sound are fitted into a small rigid frame. An wata runs into its mould like quicksilver into a groove. In translation, only the thought survives; the poem no longer ‘goes,’ any more than a watch goes if you take its works out of their casing and empty them upon a sheet of paper. In the few examples that I am about to give, the reader must for himself discover the possibility of poetry. If he is .a poet, this will present no difficulty; just as a watch-maker would see in the scattered springs and wheels the possibility of a watch.”

Let’s compare some sections:

Morris’ first paragraph: “I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days! Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself.”

Arntzen & Moriyuki’s first paragraph: “As a girl raised in the back of beyond, even farther than the end of the road to the East Country, how rustic and odd I must have been. But however it was that I first became enthralled with them, once I knew that such things as tales existed in the world, all I could think of over and over was how much I wanted to read them.”

Morris’ version of a poem about birds ceaselessly flapping their wings in a pond: “Like me those water fowl who spend the night in restless sleep/ Now sadly shake the frost from off their wings.”

Arntzen’s version of the same poem: “They are just like me, /Awake until dawn, sleeping/ Fitfully on the water, / Struggling to brush away / The frost on their wings.”

Morris’ version of a poem about Spring: The hazy Springtime moon—/ That is the one I love, / When light green sky and fragrant blooms / Are all alike enwrapped in mist.”

Arntzen’s version of the same poem: “Lucent green— / misting over, becoming one / with the blossoms too; / dimly it may be seen, / the moon on a night in spring.”

Morris’ version of your last poem: Wildly the sagebrush grows / Outside this house where no one comes to call, / And my tears well up / Like the drops of dew upon those leaves.”

Arntzen’s version of the same poem: “Mugwort growing / ever thicker, sodden / with dew; / a voice sought by no one / cries out all alone.”

In poetry, I very much prefer Arntzen’s choices and final effect, while in the prose sections I think both versions are complementary – Morris’ translation reads more easily, but Arntzen & Moriyuki’s version explains the literary allusions more thoroughly through extensive notes, as well as a comprehensive study, analysis and bibliography. I also preferred the layout style of Arntzen & Moriyuki’s version, with notes on the facing page – your text is located on the left-hand pages, and the corresponding right-hand side has explanatory notes – and with the transliterated Japanese original poems printed side-by-side with their translated versions.

Finally, I found Morris’ interpretation of the book, as expressed in his introduction, too condescending and simplistic. For him, you were a childish, frivolous, and shy woman who used fantasy and daydreaming as an attempt to escape from reality. In this vein, according to Morris, your book is a bitter moralizing tale about the futility of reading tales, and the conflict between narrative fiction and religious truth.

Arntzen & Moriyuki, on the other hand, offer a more complex reading of your writing. For them, your book is not centered around an opposition between illusion and reality or literature and religion, but on the complementarity of these notions. Yours is a book about your life as a passionate reader, a life lived through literature; it is about your spiritual awakening as something not opposed to, but intrinsically linked to your lifelong engagement with fiction. Yours is not a trajectory from frivolous fantasy to wisdom – as Morris has put it – but one that has lead to wisdom through the very path of fantasy.

The surface narrative of disillusionment with tales is superposed by a background narrative of spiritual development that was only made possible by your passion for these same tales. Rather than a conflict, we have a mutual collaboration between literary imagination and Buddhist truth. Your literary infatuation does not lead you astray; on the contrary, it leads you to the very core of the matter: it shapes your book, as much as it has shaped your life.

Yours truly,


Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

“To whom could I show this?
Whom could I have listen to this?
The mountain dwelling,
This moment of daybreak, and
This singing back and forth.” – Lady Sarashina, tr. Sonja Arntzen & Itō Moriyuki

“I composed this poem,

She who dives into the waves
Is bound to wet her sleeves.
Yet fondly I recall our days
As fellow divers by the sea.

One of my companions replied,

Together we scoured the windswept coast,
But found no shells that we could use,
And only our sleeves were spattered by the surf.

And the other:

Had she not hoped to find some seaweed growing in the bay,
This diver never would have searched the windswept shore,
Peering for some gap among the waves.” – Lady Sarashina, tr. Ivan Morris

About the books

  • The Sarashina diary: a woman’s life in eleventh-century Japan, by Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, 2014, tr. Sonja Arntzen & Itō Moriyuki, 239 p. Goodreads. My rating: 5 stars
  • As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan, 1989, tr. Ivan Morris, 176 p. Goodreads . My rating: 3,5 stars
  • Also: Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, 1920, tr. Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi,  198 p. Goodreads
  • First published in c. 1060
  • Original title: 更級日記 [Sarashina Nikki]
  • This book was read for Women in Translation MonthJapanese Literature Challenge

8 thoughts on “This moment of daybreak, and this singing back and forth

  1. Such a beautiful letter to the author and review of her diary and so clear which interpretation would have suited her sensibility, one written with empathy and understanding from inside the work. Thank you for comparing and sharing this.


  2. Fascinating comparison of the two translations, and interesting how the preface perhaps reflects an influence based on how the translator has perceived the individual who wrote it. I think if I were to read this, I would read the Arntzen and Moriyuki version. Lovely review.


  3. A lovely post! The letter form is very creative, and your criticisms are convincing. I shall have to dig out my copy of Diaries of Court Ladies of Japan, which I ordered after reading Tale of Genji last year.


  4. It sounds as if this would be a good choice to read after The Tale of Genji. Thank you for comparing the two translations. It can be difficult to know which of the competing translations of a given work to choose.

    I’d also like to apologize for letting you down on the #120daysofgenji read-along. I made it about halfway through the novel before getting derailed. I recently picked it back up again. I just wish I didn’t dislike Genji so much. 😦


    1. Thank you! I really liked the Sarashina Diary, particularly in the most recent translation. Hope you enjoy 🙂 And no problem, I had my issues with The Tle of Genji as well. I couldn’t care less about Genji, really! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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