Tell me (your name)!

Today I present another tale of Man'yōshū editing derring-do, this time featuring poem #1.

Yes, that's right: 1. The very first poem in the entire collection. You might think that copyists would be able to stay motivated long enough to get the very first poem done without transcription errors, especially as it is attributed to Emperor Yūryaku, ancient symbol of the Yamato ascendancy.

But no. The poem is irregular in a number of ways, including metrically, and few editors have managed to resist the temptation to propose a set of regularizing amendments.

Let's compare a couple of translations. First, Helen Craig McCullough's version in Brocade by night: "Kokin wakashū" and the court style in Japanese classical poetry:

O maiden
with a basket,
a pretty basket,
with a scoop,
a pretty scoop,
maiden picking greens
on this hillside:
I want to ask about your house;
I want to be told your name.
In the sky-filling land of Yamato
it is I
who rule everyone
it is I
who rule everywhere,
and so I think you will tell me
where you live,
what you are called.

Next, Earl Roy Miner's translation, from An introduction to Japanese court poetry:

With a basket
A pretty basket,
With a trowel,
A pretty trowel in your hand,
O young maid gathering
Greens on this hill,
Tell me your home,
Tell about yourself.
I hold the power
Over this land of Yamato
Broad under heaven,
And I am a chief known to all;
Famous everywhere,
My power is known to all.
And so to no one else,
Yes, to me alone,
Tell of your home and your name.

There are a few differences that might be explored here, but the one of most interest to me is the first house/name query. McCullough has "I want to ask about your house/ I want to be told your name." Miner has "Tell me your home/ Tell about yourself." The absence vs presence of "name" is not an artifact of translation: it actually reflects different approaches to the text.

Consider the traditional version of the Japanese part corresponding to these two lines, with a fairly standard "reading". Here I'm going to follow Bjarke Frellesvig's practice and use regular text to romanize logographic writing, and italics for phonographic writing:

... 家吉閑名告紗根 ...
... ipye kikana/ norasane ...

So ipye, "house", is written with 家, which is the Chinese character that means house. We therefore don't know for certain that the first person to write it down as part of this poem meant it to be pronounced ipye — but tradition tells us that it is, and that there are no strong completing claims, so we accept it without complaint.

Kikana is written with three characters used solely for their phonetic value: 吉閑名, not their meaning. We are fairly confident that our understanding of how Chinese characters were used for phonetic value is basically correct, so we assume that this part was meant to be pronounced kikana.

Now, if we translate ipye kikana/ norasane literally, we get "I want to ask your house/ Tell me." There is no word corresponding to "name". The character 名 is in there, and this means "name" and is used for that meaning (i.e. logographically) elsewhere in the MYS, but here we are interpreting it as strictly phonetic: the -na at the end of kikana.

So was McCullough's "name" added as something to be implicitly understood in the text, like her "O maiden"? No! In fact, she was working from a different interpretation of the text. Check out the romanized "originals" that McCullough and Miner supply:

McCullough: "... ie kikana/ na norasanu ..."
Miner: "... Ie kikana/ Norasane ..."

McCullough includes a note saying that her line 9 has been "[e]mended to follow the [Shōgakukan] Nihon koten bungaku zenshū edition; the NKBT [i.e. Iwanami Shoten Nihon koten bungaku taikei] edition omits the particle [sic!] na."

That is, the 1957 NKBT edition (ed. Takagi et al) reads the text in the "standard" way I described above: ipye kikana/ norasane (which they write, in modern orthography, "家聞かな/告らさね". In a footnote, they explain that there is a tradition of reading the phrase "家聞かな/告らさね" (i.e. with /na/ appearing twice in a row), but they don't feel it is supported: for that, you would have to get the /-kana/ out of 閑 alone, and for complex reasons that I won't go into they argue that this is implausible.

I don't know what the NKBZ edition McCullough was working from says, but in the Shin Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei (ed. Satake et al) edition, which is to say Iwanami's update on Takagi's 1957 NKBT edition, the position is that "家吉閑名告紗根" is a corruption of "家告奈名告紗根", which they read "ipye norana/ na norasane". Thus, not only do they find the extra /na/ for "name", they also change the verb used in the first part: it goes from "I want to ask your house" to "Tell me your house". (They have a couple of older sources for this amendment.)

If we grant that the mistranscription from 告奈 to 吉閑 is possible (and it's not as crazy as it seems, if you consider the calligraphic forms rather than the print ones), this actually is an attractive theory in some ways. First, it forms a better parallel with the end of the poem, where "house and name" are both explicitly mentioned. Second, it unifies everything to the verb noru, which I suppose earns it points for neatness. Third, it removes the slightly suspicious situation whereby 閑 appears in this poem but nowhere else in the entire MYS. And fourth, it brings the use of norasane in line with the other two instances in the MYS which are both "汝が名告らさね": na ga na norasane, "Tell me your name!", with the object explicitly included.

On the other hand, the "con" column has two big issues. The first is that getting the meaning "Tell (me) X" from X norana is a bit of a stretch. Satake et al assure us that it is possible, but it's more usual to see the bare -na used to mean "I want to X" (as in kikana) or "I hope that (third party) Xes."

The second is similar to the one discussed in my last post. The poem isn't obviously broken in its na-less form. It was good enough for Takagi in 1957, for example. Satake et al's proposed amendment is a little too ingenious. It takes me back to studying Old English in university, where the bolder and more ingenious a proposed "fix" was, the more likely it was to be proven inaccurate by later developments in the understanding of the language itself and/or meticulous examination, with better technology, of the primary sources.

Popularity factor: 13

L.N. Hammer:

Not going to bring Cranston's translation into the mix?



Interesting stuff! My weighty old Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkōkai edition (published 1940, given to my mother by Shigeharu Kikuchi in 1952 -- I still have the Xmas/New Year card with the inscription "May you keep this book in your library to commemorate your staying in Japan!"), whose translations (highly praised by Donald Keene) were done by a committee and revised by the English poet Ralph Hodgson, has:

Your basket, with your pretty basket,
Your trowel, with your little trowel,
Maiden, picking herbs on this hill-side,
I would ask you: Where is your home?
Will you not tell me your name?
Over the spacious Land of Yamato
It is I who reign so wide and far,
It is I who rule so wide and far.
I myself, as your lord, will tell you
Of my home, and my name.

Of particular interest to me is the discrepancy at the end, where the NGS version has the author saying he'll tell the maiden of his home and name rather than again asking about hers. Here's the romaji version they provide:

Ko moyo miko mochi fugushi moyo mifugushi mochi
kono oka ni na tsumasu ko ie kikana na norasane
soramitsu Yamato no kuni wa oshinabete ware koso ore
shikinabete ware koso mase ware kosowa se towa norame
iye womo na womo

Vilhelm S:

Wow, this is amazing. Every time I read about manyougana I wonder how anyone managed to read anything at all.

I also feel there ought to be some feminist analysis of the "I run this place, now give me your phone number" message...


You're leaving out the most controversial portion of the first poem: the reading of 我許背歯.

In the Old Taikei, the editors gave this the reading "ware NI koso wa", whereas in the New Taikei, it is "ware koso ba". In Ōno 2007:12-14 (日本語の源流を求めて), the late Ōno Susumu--one of the Old editors-- describes the events. He and another editor vigorously argued whether NI was needed for over a month. Ōno insisted that it was needed to make overall sense as a proposal poem. Without it, the Emperor would be proposing by stating his name and house when he should be asking her of her name and house. As Ōno relates, he eventually won, but over the decades since publication, support has shifted to the version without NI, although raises questions about the interpretation.

For a challenge, try to read poem #9. Others of some difficult are #97, 133, 145, 156, 160, and 655.


This poem drove me crazy after we briefly looked at it in class (especially the bit Kindaichi mentioned) and started some kind of love/hate obsession with Man'youshuu.

All I can say is thank you for this post.


"For a challenge, try to read poem #9."

I submit that this is mere trolling.


L.N. Hammer:

@Vilhelm S: Word.


Cranston's translation I don't even own, sadly.

LH: Yes, the discrepancy at the end is the issue that Kindaichi explains (thanks K). I ran out of blogging time to go into it, but it's basically as he says: there's no /ni/ written in the text, so either you add one to make it "say to me", or you assume that the speaker is doing the saying, or you do something else entirely. It's a controversy but it's one I'm even less able to comment on since everything I know about saying/asking names as ancient Japanese courtship behavior I learned from... footnotes on MYS Poem #1.

Avery: Absolutely, trolling of the finest order.


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