Tuesday, 2 March 2010

平家物語と欽定訳聖書 Heike-monogatari and the King James Bible

Following on from a rather disappointing conclusion to the last yojijukugo, I guess I should give an example of a truly righteous one, from the Heike-monogatari. I read the Heike story a few years ago, in translation, so the yojijukugo was hidden from me back then. In truth, I found this a few months ago whilst trawling through some early postings over at no-sword. It's such a fan-dabby-doozy one though, I think there's no harm in revisiting it:

sho gyou mu jou
everything goes, nothing eternal

Just after this wonderful yojijukugo, still in the Heike, there is another one to be found, saying much the same thing:

jou sha his sui
the prosperous must decay

They are both in the first few lines of the Heike, here:

Here is
Helen McCullough's great translation:
"The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind."

As you can see, she has translated 諸行無常 as "the impermanence of all things" and 盛者必衰 as "the prosperous must decline."

I was intrigued by her translation of たけき者も遂にぼろびぬ as "the mighty fall at last", not for any linguistic reasons, as I have virtually no experience of mediaeval Japanese (is that even the right nomenclature?) but because the phrase "the mighty fall at last" had a very familiar ring to it. Of course, it is from that phrase we are all too often apt to utter, "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." This phrase, though, is incredibly elusive. Where does it come from? We use it often enough, but who said it first? Google was loath to offer any help. I searched for the phrase alongside The Iliad, Alexander Pope, and Shakespeare but to no avail. What I did notice, however, was that the searches were throwing up rather a lot of bible-orientated doom-prophesying sites (wtf, right?). Deciding that this phrase must be from the daddy of all books, the King James Bible, I used a brilliant website, http://kjvbible.net/ which let's you search through and read the entire thing. Sure enough, the phrase, or near enough to it, pops up in none other than the book of Samuel. "How are the mighty fallen" is used no less than three times after the death of the first king of Israel, Saul. Now there's a story for you.

Props to The King James Bible, man. Apart from maybe Shakespeare's stuff or Johnson's dictionary, I'd say no book has influenced the English language more.


  1. Nice post! You've piqued my interest in the Bible...and shit, I'm surprised to even be saying that.

  2. The King James Bible is quite fascinating, both as a work of literature, and in its influence on English language and history. I mean, it was the first authorised English-language bible available; and when it was first made, a copy was sent to every parish in England. Folks from all over, with wildly different dialects, began listening to this same scholarly tome. Phrases like these, "how the mighty are fallen" creep into our conversations almost all the time, and while often dimly aware that we are quoting or paraphrasing, we often can't remember where from.
    Such is the ubiquity of the King James Bible.