Monday, November 5, 2012

Introduction to Konjaku Monogatarishū (今昔物語集)

I've decided to mix in some translation/analysis posts on another work that I've had (brief) exposure to: Konjaku Monogatarishū (今昔物語集), or Compilation of Stories from the Past, a collection of Buddhist and secular tales written and collated towards the end of the Heian period (794-1185). Other than my prior exposure to it, one reason why I selected Konjaku is because, in many ways, it can be contrasted with Shunshoku Umegoyomi. The latter was written in the late Edo period, while the policy of sakoku was still in effect. It can thus be seen primarily as the product of an introverted Japan, one that shunned external influence. This juxtaposes very nicely with Konjaku, which consists of more than 1000 stories, including ones from India (天竺てんじく), China (震旦しんたん), and Japan (本朝ほんちょう). Moreover, the presence of a strong Buddhist influence on many of the stories is a clear sign of foreign source material. Finally, the large difference in time periods between the two works (1100s vs. 1830s) allows us to compare and contrast premodern Japanese from different eras and perhaps trace some of its evolution.

Fig. 1: An example
of the poor quality
of the text in the
Suzuka Manuscript

(from vol. 2,
tale 2, page 1)
One practical similarity that Konjaku has with Umegoyomi is that high quality scans of it are freely available online, this time from Kyoto University. The version that Kyoto University has made available is the Suzuka Manuscript (鈴鹿家旧蔵本). According to Wikipedia, this is the oldest extant copy of Konjaku, dating back 700 to 800 years. Unlike Umegoyomi, however, a kanji/kana transcription in a print typeface is provided alongside the scanned copy. This will prove very useful, as Konjaku does not contain any furigana and is quite kanji-dense. Moreover, whereas the copy of Umegoyomi I've been referring to is a woodblock print that imitates handwritten Japanese of the late Edo period (and is thus slightly easier to read than actual handwriting), the Suzuka Manuscript is handwritten and of poor legibility in many places (see fig. 1). I can't imagine I would get very far trying to read such a work in just its original, handwritten form. My plan at the moment is to translate one or two stories from each of the 3 sections of Konjaku.

Regarding the name, although 「今昔」 literally means "present and past", and not just "past", it is actually a reference to the opening line of many of the tales in the compilation, which starts with the phrase 「今は昔」 ("it is now a long time ago...", or more idiomatically: "once upon a time..."). The phrase is written as 「今昔」 in Chinese, and was co-opted as the title for the collection. Throughout Konjaku, I expect we will see numerous other signs of this strong Sinitic influence.

List of Translations:

Vol. 2:
  1. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 1)
  2. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 2)
  3. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 3)
  4. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 4)
  5. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 5)
  6. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 6)
  7. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 7)
  8. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 8)
  9. Tale 1: Śuddhodana's Death #1 (part 9)

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