Friday, 28 June 2019

Victor Harris - the original Book of Five Rings


Perhaps the best cover of any version of Gorin no Sho - and the picture is one of Kuniyoshi's depictions of Musashi.

Published by Overlook Press in 1974, this was the first translation of Musashi’s work into English, and for a long time, the only one. One might occasionally pick up fragments in other works – I am particularly reminded of one story in an illustrated book on samurai in my secondary school library, a story about a fan-wielding master of saiminjutsu who managed to persuade Musashi that he was carrying a sword). It has been around for so long, certainly in my life, that it has become part of the landscape. The phrases it used, even the title itself – A Book of Five Rings (Scrolls of the Five Elements would be more accurate, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring) have become familiar. Other translators may have chosen to alter some of these classic formulations, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but the shadow of the original continues to hang over them. It is not easy to assess. But this is escaping the issue. Does it deserve respect for more than its merits as a forerunner in this genre?


First, it should be noted how well it has stood up in the forty-five years since it was first published. Victor Harris (who died in 2017) was an experienced kendoka, an expert on the Japanese sword (President of the Token Society of Great Britain), and head of the Japanese Department of the British Museum. He was deeply involved in this field. For all that, A Book of Five Rings was a relatively early work. Would he have liked to change anything? I have no idea, but I have read that he would sometimes refer to Musashi in his teaching, so I am sure his understanding and appreciation of the work deepened and matured over the many years since he first worked on the translation.


Despite the fact that I no longer use it as my translation of choice, it is still a good choice for anyone interested in Musashi’s writing, although its strengths as a book (at least in the original version) perhaps weigh stronger than the absolute qualities of the translation. Compared to all the subsequent works, it is better set out as a book – the care given to the layout and spacing of the text makes it exceptionally easy to read and consult; the front matter, although not extensive, is relevant (especially for those days when very few in the west had heard of Musashi). It is clear and well-written, and despite being somewhat dated (Musashi ‘scholarship’ has come on a lot since those days) provides a good overview of the standard view of Musashi’s life and significant duels. There is a slip in the general historical background when he confuses his shogunates, but this is a minor detail (and shouldn’t be used to judge what is a serious and well-considered work.) It has atmosphere, and this is something that is often overlooked – it shouldn’t be. There is also a good choice of art and photographic references – most of the subsequent translations have followed his lead on this – including some difficult-to-find pictures which are rarely seen elsewhere.


There are weaknesses, but these are not fatal flaws. Chief among these is the writing style, which has a tendency to be somewhat opaque. I do not necessarily feel that translations should read as if the writers were our contemporaries – given Musashi’s background and class, (and style in the original) there is a degree of terseness that is not easy to preserve in English, but in this work, the meaning is not always as clear as it might be. I feel that there is a lack of authority, perhaps because of the author’s lack of grounding in the technique (although he was a serious kendo practitioner and was later involved in older styles of Japanese sword arts, kendo and kenjutsu are different animals), as if he didn’t quite understand the finer points of the techniques he was writing about. I hesitate to say it, especially in view of his continued involvement in the field and obvious facility with the language, but it looks to me as if he was unsure of what it was Musashi was saying in some places. This is natural enough, especially in descriptions of sword technique, but translation is also an act of imaginative creation: as a writer, the translator attempts to reimagine the meaning of the words and translate their message with reference to the wording and style of the original as necessary. I feel as if Harris sometimes gives more weight to the words than to the meaning, with the result that something that is quite clear in the Japanese is suddenly open to a range of interpretations in English. But this is the translator’s art – any translation may be more or less successful at this. Some of his successors have made more informed decisions, better decisions I feel – but they also had something to work with, as Harris did not.


Yes, it still stands on its own merits. For anyone serious about looking into Gorin no Sho, I would recommend other versions as well, or perhaps primarily, and if your Japanese is up to it, versions in Japanese, preferably in both the modern and original Japanese. The language Musashi uses is not generally difficult (although a few sections might prove problematic) and the Japanese certainly gives a more visceral feel to the work. But if this is a step too far at the moment, you won’t go far wrong with the Victor Harris translation – a book to inform and inspire.


  1. Thanks for the info on a book I still feel interested in although I also encountered it a very oh time ago

  2. I had this book a long time ago. It was beautifully produced.