Seminar Season is here and you want to learn a Japanese martial art at a seminar with Japanese speaking sensei?. What’s the best thing to do? Here’s two ends of the continuum I suppose:
Just want to learn the art? I don’t think any sort of translator is necessary, and in fact any translation can often be a hindrance. What you mostly need is to learn “here”, “not here”, “this way” “not like this” and so on. Too much talk and the brain gets in the way of the eyes. Paying attention is MUCH more important than knowing what sensei is saying, which is usually pretty much what you hear every day in the dojo anyway.
If you want to learn Japanese culture…. move to Japan, it’s a lot more efficient than learning martial arts and Japanese over here. Imagine someone in Nagoya trying to learn North American culture by studying, say, lacrosse or basketball and taking English lessons. A skewed version of the culture at best.
If you’re interested in what sensei has to say about the art (and who isn’t) than you get along with a translator as best you can. To learn the esoterica of budo or to catch the subtleties of this or that philosophical argument you’d better have a translator that is not only fluent in both Japanese and English (and I mean fluent, not someone who can tell you how to get to the train station) and is familiar with the esoterica that you’re trying to discuss. Otherwise it isn’t going to work. It’s not going to work if you’re learning Japanese yourself either. If these things were easy to communicate we’d already know them… and those things that are easy to communicate… we do already know. If a Japanese sensei has a problem explaining a point of philosophy to another Japanese, it isn’t likely to get across to us at all, no matter how well we know the language or how good the translator is.
Of course I could be wrong about this and Japanese may actually be a simple to learn but highly accurate language for getting ideas across and I am just too dim to understand that.
One thing about the practicalities, in this area we’ve always been taught by and had native Japanese speakers in the dojo so the problem of culture and translation has never actually come up. The Japanese in Canada seem to see no great need for us to become Japanese or to learn the Japanese culture in order to gain the benefits of the martial arts. It seems to be enough that we’re sincere and that we work hard. What things we need to know (pour beer for sensei, shut up and practice) we pick up pretty easily by association.
Best thing is to simply relax about the esoterica, practice what you’re shown and read books for the rest.