Sunday, 7 July 2013

Hyoshi: timing, rhythm and translation

The cover of the Victor Harris translation

This is a slightly expanded version of a post I made on the forum at with reference to a question about the difference between background timing and distance timing as mentioned in The Book of Five Rings. This seemed to ring a bell with me, and a quick look at the old Victor Harris translation confirmed that it was from there. The section concerned (from the Earth Book) reads:

'...and from among the large and small things and the fast and slow timings find the relevant timing, first seeing the distance timing and the background timing.'

Translation can be a tricky business. In this case, the trouble is, Musashi did not actually write this.  Much as I like the Harris version, some of the subsequent versions, particularly those by William Scott Wilson and Kenji Tokitsu, are generally more accurate. Wilson’s is generally reckoned a solid translation; Tokitsu's is the most transparent, as he goes into some length about the reasons for various aspects of his translation (as well as much else).

In this case, the section that most closely matches the one the questioner was referring to is this one. What Musashi actually wrote was:

...daisho chisoku hyoshi no naka ni mo, ataru hyoshi wo shiri, ma no hyoshi wo shiri, somuku hyoshi wo shiru koto

There is no pairing of background and distance timing/rhythm. In fact, there is no term relating directly to background rhythm as such.

Wilson translates this section as: 

Within the rhythms of large and small, slow and fast, know the rhythm of contact, the rhythm of spacing and the rhythm of resistance to rhythm.

This is a good, straightforward translation. However, Wilson is not a swordsman, and doesn't always catch the subtleties of technical terms. ‘The rhythm of spacing’ is actually a little problematic. 

The classic scene from The Seven Samurai when Kyuzo
shows the importance of finesse in timing.

Although ma has something of the meaning of distance/spacing, it is more correct to see it as interval – it is capable of referring either to space or time (i.e. the time between two things happening or between two things happening). In this case, the sense of ‘time’ is probably meant rather than ‘space’; if this is so (there are other instances in Musashi’s writings that suggest it is) the meaning is thus closer to ‘rhythm between actions’, e.g. the time between the opponent finishing one move and starting another. At a deeper level, the ma would be much smaller than this suggests, a tiny gap in perception rather than action.

I would translate it as:
Within the rhythm of large and small, fast and slow, you should understand the rhythm of striking, the rhythm between actions, and the use of counter rhythms.

..which is not perfect, but does address ma no hyoshi. It is also worth noting that in his 35 Articles on Strategy, Musashi has a section on hyoshi no ma (the gaps in rhythm) in which he deals with more or less the same issue.

Having said 'more or less', I should note that the Gorin no sho is open to interpretation due to the way it is written, and that once translated, this problem is magnified. Musashi certainly meant his strategy to be widely applicable, but while he could generalize, he could also be quite specific. In fact, the ability to make fine distinctions was crucial to his art.
Though he might be glad that readers of his work were pondering deeply on the difference between the different hyoshi he mentioned, he would, of course, be quick to point out that this understanding should be based on practice, not mere cogitation.