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Details and Difficulty
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kenshusei
"Relax. Love the difficulty." - me

I got a new translation of "Go Rin no Sho" today, done by William Scott Wilson.

When I picked it up in the book store, I flipped through it and debated whether or not to buy it. After all, I had more than one copy of this work in my house. In fact, I had three. The problem was that all three had problems. Unfortunately, the most commonly consumed translation was done by an arrogant ass who really doesn't understand Japanese martial arts and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't speak Japanese. Second to that is the text that the ass stole from, which was translated by an Englishman about a hundred years ago. With the best of intentions, the Englishman didn't really understand Japanese culture and only understood parts of the language. The third, a more contemporary one, was done by a martial artist who seemed intent on not just translating the work, but telling the reader what Musashi's words "meant".

Suffice to say, I've never been satisfied with any of the English translations, and my own Japanese isn't good enough to tackle the more scholarly iterations that exist in native Japanese, so finding a quality translation of the work has been a priority of mine for quite some time.

I ended up buying the work, because of something I read in the first ten pages of Wilson's translation. In those pages, Musashi spends a lot of time comparing his swordcraft to the different feudal Japanese castes. Ultimately, he concludes that what he does as a warrior is much closer to the mindset of a carpenter than anything else. He makes an extensive discussion of how the mind of the carpenter mirrors what he believes to be the true mind of the warrior.

This little discussion may not seem very important, but having spent a lot of time around martial artists, I can tell you that this mentality has proven almost universally true for every very skillful person I have ever met. When I describe a really good carpenter, certain phrases come to mind. "Pays attention to detail", "Takes pleasure in good work", "Extremely precise", and "Obsessive-compulsive devotion". Really good martial artists have a carpenter's commitment to neatness and obsessive attention to detail. Among the pattern and "forms" we learn in our various disciplines, there lives a vast sea of information that is only available to people obsessive enough to really explore each and every detail, from the angle of the neck at the moment of the bow to whether or not the little toe is tense at the end of the technique.

All the other translators have omitted this discussion on "carpenter mind" or shortened it considerably so the text "flowed" better to the Western reader.

I strongly disagree with that type of work.

In my opinion, Musashi is delivering the goods right up front like a good communicator should. Almost a decade of experience has informed me that the mindset discussed is absolutely critical, and until someone acquires it, they cannot do Japanese budo the way they ought to.

Most of the Musashi translators presumed they knew better than the author themselves, and made the decision that this discussion wasn't important. In doing so, I feel like they took one of the real gems in the work and tossed it into the pig trough.

What I really like about Wilson's translation is its difficulty. Instead of "simplifying" the text to make it more palatable, he takes pains to try and render exactly what Musashi has written into another language, whether it seems sensical or not. This seems the best course of action to me. Some things will only make sense from a certain perspective. Others will only make sense over time. Some phrases might contain multiple meanings. Streamlining a text so it says what a translator wants it to say really robs a text of a lot of its potential "stuff".

After all, the whole purpose of reading such a text is to see what a master swordsman says about swordsmanship, and not what someone with a bachelor's in Asian studies thinks.

Unfortunately, a lot of Asian things get this sort of treatment when they are exposed to the Western world. Little bits of Zen, aesthetics, Kodo, or whatever else get simplified and passed on. Often the best parts are omitted out of ignorance and enthusiasm.

This runs rampant in the martial arts. I've known more than one 19 year-old "mixed martial artist" who told me that instead of training in one discipline, he took "only the best stuff from all of them." 

With all due respect, "hardy har har." Imagine this. Someone comes up to you and says, "So, I spent about six months in medical school. Then, I went to law school for half a semester... but don't worry, I took the best parts from both professions. So, what would you like me to do; try your case first or perform surgery on you?"

If you have a brain cell in your skull, I hope your answer would be "no" to both. Combat systems evolve over time. People devote entire lifetimes to exploring them, and usually die saying that there's more to learn. Therefore, one might be tempted to call such attitutes "hubris in the extreme". Let me tell you what I learned six months into aikibudo: I could tie the belt right and I could pronounce it correctly... that's about it. Like anything worthwhile, my training has been extremely difficult, and it takes a long time to really appreciate the nuance.

That said, I feel like Musashi's work deserves the same respect as my training. It is meant to be difficult, because there is a lifetime of skill and observation packed into a very small, concise text.

Like I said above: relax. Enjoy the difficulty. It makes things worthwhile. Carpenters and swordsmen agree.


- Ken










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Careful.. Carpenters have a nasty habit of being led by Walruses and/or being the parent of Messiahs. ;]

Overall.. I agree. I'll never be a good carpenter (I don't do it nearly enough, aka: I never Practice).. if you only did martial arts when you needed to defend yourself, you'd never be good at it either ;]


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