Musashi was a crap technical writer. – Dec 2, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Looking around on the net for stuff that has disappeared, you will find a lot that has shown up. For instance, looking for an old paper on Musashi, I came across two or three translations of the Go Rin no Sho I hadn’t seen before. That makes what? 15, 20?

As usual I checked first to see if they were the Victor Harris translation… there are dozens of those out there unattributed. Once it’s digitized it’s fair game I suppose. Then I look at the first of the five kata and see how close they get to the way that Niten Ichiryu does it today. That’s always good for a laugh as the various translators try to interpret something that really shouldn’t be so hard to get. There are two major lines, the Noda ha and the Santo ha and two or three variations in each of those lines that are still practicing in Japan and in some few cases, outside. They aren’t hard to find and a few minutes conversation would reveal a lot of information about what Musashi was banging on about with his “kissaki gaeshi” and his “press down the sword”.

So I’d think the first thing to do would be to talk with the current students of the students of the guy who wrote the book. But then you’d run into my problem… the various lines aren’t in perfect agreement. They’re pretty damned close if you look underneath a lot of style, but there are still some differences that add up to “still not sure” what Musashi was talking about. There’s too much unsaid in his description of the style, and that means one thing to me. Musashi was crap at writing a manual that beginners could use.

Now you will say that the book wasn’t intended for general consumption and that his students would know what he meant so there wasn’t much reason to write it down, but in that case why write it down at all? Why not just say “the first kata” or “when doing chudan”.

So I look at each of the translations and think to myself “am I doing it wrong? Are the other lines wrong too? Has the telephone tag reached it’s hilarious and confusing end? Then I always come back to “what does it matter?” It’s not as if I’m ever going to need to use my swords and as long as my way is the best way I don’t even have to worry about the other lines. There’s only a couple hundred of us in the world anyway.

But still, I keep looking at those translations and thinking about what was really being said and worrying that the more I read the more I settle on “yeah, he was actually describing what I do today”. The power of picking and choosing what I want to see. I’d hate to think that I fooled myself into thinking that what I was doing was the “correct” way of doing it. That way lies self-satisfaction and smuggery.

Now I’ve got the bright idea to put all the translations side by side in a spreadsheet and examine them together to see if there are any patterns. Of course I’d have to get rid of those that were just repackaging Mr. Harris’ version, and what do I do with those who have advanced degrees in Japanese but no martial arts experience, and those with years of martial arts training and no language certificates? I’ve heard that you can’t translate accurately into a language other than your own and I’ve heard that if you aren’t a native speaker you can’t understand enough of the language you’re trying to translate out of. So how do I figure out which translations were done by folks who were raised in ancient and modern Japanese and English all at once? Those would be the ones to give more weight wouldn’t they?

Language skills, Martial arts skills or actually practicing the art now? Who’s going to have the best translation? Hey, maybe a committee? Or I could call the spreadsheet the committee of committees. A meta-committee!

Of course I could just do what Musashi told me to do, go swing the swords and let them talk to me, but that would be too easy and it’s usually what I end up doing anyway when I start down this road.

At least once every two years.

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