Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Book of Five Rings…but which one?

An imaginative recreation of Musashi in the cave at Reigendo where he wrote Gorin no Sho.

Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin no Sho is one of the most famous books in the field of martial arts. Since the first commercial translation in 1974 (Victor Harris, Overlook Press) there have been a host of others, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses – the publication of another translation in 2018 (Alexander Bennett, Tuttle) makes it worth considering the merits of some of the most significant of these.

Reigendo, the cave where Musashi lived for the last two years of his life.

Written in the last two years of his life when he was living in the cave Reigendo, in Mount Iwato in Kyushu, he finished it a few days before he died on the 19thday of the 5thmonth, 1645. he passed it to his student Terao Magonojo. The original five scrolls, bearing only the titles of the elements, (rather than the name Gorin no Sho) were destroyed by a castle fire less than fifty years later – fortunately several copies had been made.

When it comes to translations, it is difficult to say one version is better than another; personal taste plays a major role here – the writing style of one translator may just sit with a reader better than another does. 

So, what is it that I look for in a translation?

Primarily, fidelity to the original – in content and in tone. You might think this is pretty much a given – surely all translators try to be accurate in their work? Translation requires more tha linguistic skill, and some translators make it a virtue that their work is more approachable than the original (or previous versions). But for me, this may well make it less useful.

The brevity of Japanese gives translators a great deal of leeway, and although all of the significant translations oGorin no Sho are, for the most part, accurate (anyone can be forgiven for a minor error), for a text like this something more is required. Words and phrases in either language have a value or effect beyond their outward meaning. Some words are stronger, some more subtle, they have rhythm and energy. Some have additional connotations; a translator’s sensitivity to  these is important, particularly if they are translating a document as something that speaks to us now, rather than a historical curiosity.

Perhaps, then, it ismerely a matter of personal opinion. There are certainly inconsistencies, infelicities of language and even inaccuracies in even the best of translations, but each of those currently available have something to offer. Personally, I like to be able to hear the voice of the original writer coming through. It is true that some of Musashi’s instructions can be difficult to follow, but if I cannot begin to imagine what he was actually saying from reading the translation, I think something has been missed.

As a word or warning – don’t believe the editor and fanboy reviews you may find on Amazon or elsewhere for some of these versions. I don’t consider any of them to be more definitive than the others in any substantial way. Nor do I feel that the authors’ experience in martial arts or lack of it necessarily makes a difference…it can do, but even those practising traditional martial arts may be a long way from the kind of art Musashi was writing about.

There is also the question of familiarity: I first read Gorin no Sho at the age of about 15, and over the years, certain phrases have become familiar. Subsequent translators will naturally write in their own style; though perfectly accurate, the difference may not be to the reader’s liking if they are already familiar with the text. Alternatively, the reader may find a new translation speaks to them in a different voice and what was previously opaque becomes clearer. 

Finally, the prospective reader might also consider the design of the book. How big is it? How has it been laid out? What illustrations are there? What additional background, notes, introduction etc. the author has seen fit to include? Some books are just more pleasant or easier to read and use as reference. Others have more useful or interesting notes and explanations. It depends on what the reader is looking for, but there are significant differences.

Having laid out these brief considerations, I will look at some of my favourite versions in the next few posts.