Interview with David Groff, translator of “The Five Rings”

Posted: March 5, 2013 in Books, Interviews, Uncategorized, Writers
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David Groff is an American expatriate living in Japan, where he studies martial arts and translates classic samurai texts.

Wow. I feel like just typing that sentence made me cooler.

Anyway, I recently reviewed his translation of Miyamoto Musashi’s 17th Century work, The Five Rings. You can see that review here.

David agreed to a follow-up interview where he discusses his martial arts training, the challenges of translating a work like The Five Rings, and the always contentious issue of samurai vs. ninjas.

How did you end up in Japan, and handling this translation?

I came to Japan in 1997 as an English teacher. I’d been kicking around doing a variety of jobs since college, and did a brief stint teaching Italian at Penn State, where I realized I really enjoyed teaching. I thought about doing graduate study in Italian and pursuing teaching that, but then I thought, “Hey, my Italian is decent, but my English is really good. I bet I could teach that somewhere…” I’ve always had a bit of wanderlust, anyway, so I got an English-teaching certification and started looking for places to go, and I’d been interested in Japan for a long time… there were a lot of jobs here, and they paid well (I had a bit of debt at the time, and with the exchange rate a salary in Colombian pesos was just not going to make a dent in that); I had an interview in New York, and a few months later I was on a plane.

As for how I ended up doing this translation, it was very much an I-love-the-Internets thing. I’d worked my way up through the English-teaching ranks, and gone to graduate school, and had been teaching at the university level for a few years. As I’m sure you know, you sort of have to keep publishing in academia, and I was a little short one year and just a little tired of writing about language education. So I wrote a paper about the then-available English translations of The Five Rings, and what I saw as some of their shortcomings and room for improvement. It was in a very small journal; I didn’t really think anybody would read it. I wanted to do my own original translation at some point, but at the time I was just putting the idea out there, and filed that idea in the “someday” folder. Anyway, a couple of years later, I got an email, out of the blue, from an editor in London. The publisher wanted to add an edition of The Five Rings to a series they have of illustrated versions of classic philosophical texts – the Tao De Ching, Machiavelli’s The Prince, etc. – and the editor had found my paper in some academic database: would I be interested in doing a new translation for them? Well, my answer didn’t require much thought: “Let me… Yes. Very much.”

What got you interested in Musashi?

I got a copy of The Book of Five Rings – Victor Harris’s 1974 translation –when I was in high school. I had a bookstore gift certificate, something I’d gotten at school, I think, and I was just wandering around the bookstore when I found this book with an intriguingly cryptic title and a cool picture of a samurai warrior on the cover. This was before I’d actually started practicing martial arts, but I was already interested in the whole bushidō thing. So I bought it. Read it, couldn’t really make heads or tails of it, although it sounded cool. But I promised myself I’d figure it out, someday… and now here we are. I still can’t claim to have completely “figured it out” at this point – it is the proverbial “journey of a thousand ri” – but I like to think I’ve covered some decent ground since then.

What can a modern-day reader get out of The Five Rings?

Musashi is quite explicit about the principles of strategy that he lays out with respect to individual swordsmanship and larger-scale battle being applicable to anything: “… if you understand the Way broadly, you will find it in all things. For each person, to carefully polish his own Way – that’s what is essential” (from “Ground”). Even when talking explicitly about handling the sword, his emphasis on constant practice, experimentation, and adaptation makes these principles almost infinitely adaptable if the reader is able to think metaphorically and “having one thing, know ten thousand.”

What’s your martial arts background, and what effect do you think it had on your translation efforts?

I’ve been involved in the martial arts for over twenty years. I got my start with karate in college, and I practiced the Isshin-ryū style actively for about ten years before coming to Japan. Isshin-ryū is a very specifically Okinawan style of karate, though, and there weren’t any Isshin-ryū dojos in the Tokyo area, that I could find, and I didn’t want to start all over again as a white belt in some other style of karate. Plus, I was interested in trying some other martial arts while I was here (I didn’t know at the time I’d still be here fifteen years later), since obviously there would be a wider variety and, I imagined, practiced more authentically. Here’s where it gets a little weird. Just a little more than a week after arriving here, I was introduced to a sensei who taught, of all things, Miyamoto Musashi’s Ni Ten Ichi Ryū. This is not a very widely taught discipline; it’s not like your local area is likely to have its neighborhood Ni Ten Ichi Ryū dojo. Not only that, but the sensei (Mr. Kenshin Washio, who is still my teacher) was very keen on the idea of taking on an American as a student. I don’t particularly believe in things being “fated”, but I have to say this sort of felt that way. Washio-sensei also teaches iaidō (the “quick draw” of the katana), competition kendō, and jōdō (short staff) in addition to kenjutsu, and I have acquired dan rankings in all of them over the years, to varying degrees. I’ve also dabbled in other disciplines: aikidō, jujutsu, tai chi, and so on, but I keep coming back to the sword. “The sword is the place from which strategy begins,” writes Musashi.

The Go Rin no Sho (often called the “Book” of Five Rings – although it is originally a collection of five scrolls) is like the Bible at our dojo. My sensei has memorized what seems like the whole thing verbatim, and quotes from it often, so over the years I’ve both heard it in a variety of contexts and read it repeatedly, in both Japanese and English, so I’ve been kicking it around in my consciousness for years. Without training in the style of swordsmanship Musashi taught, it’s very hard to envision what he’s talking about sometimes, especially in technical expositions on swordsmanship such as those in “Water”. I think this was one of the major shortcomings of the earlier translations: none of the translators had ever actually practiced it, to my knowledge. My translation is not based solely on my experience at the dojo – I did a lot of my own research – but it was extremely influential.

What are the particular challenges in translating a work like this?

Wow, where to begin. First of all, the originals are lost. Most of what is left are copies of copies, sometimes several iterations removed. They’re mostly the same, but there are subtle differences. Which one do you consider the definitive one? That’s a whole area of research in itself. Linguistically, you’re looking at roughly the Japanese equivalent of Elizabethan English: it’s not utterly unintelligible, but there’s quite a lot of flexibility in grammar and orthography, not to mention unfamiliar vocabulary (a lot of the English translations were based on modernizations of the work into contemporary Japanese – which themselves contained a fair number of pretty obvious errors I found – and this contributed to a lot of the problems, I think). There’s originally very little punctuation to speak of; you often sort of have to decide for yourself where one idea ends and the next begins, and sometimes this could create a serious difference in meaning. I struggled with that a lot. Then there are just the basic difficulties of translating Japanese to English: lack of a singular/plural distinction by default (which allowed some of the earlier translations to miss the rather obvious fact that Musashi is usually referring to two swords when he describes a technique, rather than one), frequent omission of the grammatical subject of sentences, and even when there is one, Musashi often uses waré, which literally means “self” and can be construed as “I/me”, “one”, or even “you”. So that’s a bit of a challenge. Of course, the concepts are often very abstract as well. Musashi himself writes repeatedly that certain points are difficult or impossible to express in words, and must be discovered through practice.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I’ve begun work on a shorter text that Musashi wrote when he was much younger, called the Heidōkyō, or “Mirror on the Way of Strategy”. There has been some question as to whether it’s authentic, but at this point I’m pretty convinced that it is, and I think it will be interesting for readers of English to be able to compare the younger Musashi’s work to his magnum opus.

Why do you think Musashi’s work has endured, compared to some of his contemporaries?

I think mainly it’s his emphasis on the universality of the ideas, his stress that the practice of strategy reveals truths not only about fencing and warfare but what are in his view universal principles, and more specifically useful ones. This is I think unique among works of the time. Others make connections between swordsmanship and spiritual enlightenment, but none of them are as brass-tacks as Musashi: “Waging a large-scale battle, putting up a house? Same thing.”

The other thing is Musashi’s enduring popularity as a legendary figure. He’s an iconoclast, a maverick – the antithesis of model behavior in group-oriented Japan – and yet at the same time has that special kind of … focus, that I think of as being stereotypically Japanese. I think that’s why he is so beloved, both in Japan and elsewhere. Legends spread about him doing all sorts of crazy things, almost as soon as he had died. His exploits were the staples of itinerant storytellers, then kabuki dramas, and then later novels, movies, manga and anime… even video games. I think many people are fascinated by the (largely fictional) character, and then become interested in his actual work.

Is there anything about Musashi the man, or about his life and times, that you think would surprise a modern-day Western type?

Surprise? I don’t know. There’s a popular legend that he never took a bath, but there’s really no contemporary evidence for it. It would have been very unusual indeed for him to have been able to keep the company he did (later in his life, frequently daimyō and other extremely cultivated individuals) unbathed, although it’s possible he did wash himself some other way, but eschewed the practice of actually getting in the bath. That would have been noted as strange, as the bath was already then, as it is today, a central feature of Japanese life. But perhaps he found it a strategic liability (there is another apocryphal story of his escaping from an attack at a bath-house, which I think postdates the one about him never taking a bath and may have been created as an explanation) and preferred just to wipe himself down with a wet cloth or something. It’s not really known. Actually, relatively little is known about his personal life. He never married, but adopted two sons, one of whom, Iori, may have been a nephew and rose to a position of significant rank with the Hosokawa clan – he had an impressive monument to his adoptive father put up after Musashi’s death. The other son, Mikinosuke, also took a position with a samurai lord, who unfortunately died; Mikinosuke apparently followed him in junshi, the ritual suicide of retainers upon the death of their lord, a practice that was banned shortly thereafter by the Tokugawa shogunate. There are a few other stories of Musashi’s personal affairs, one that he had a daughter who died as a small child, and another that he was involved with a Yoshiwara courtesan named Kumoi, but these accounts appeared almost a hundred years after Musashi’s death and have no corroboration in documents from Musashi’s time.

One thing I think is very cool: It’s pretty well established that after a certain point Musashi entirely stopped using actual swords in contests of skill, although he didn’t object if his opponents did. That, I think, speaks to an extreme confidence in his mastery of strategy. One account of a match later in his career, when he would have been around fifty, has him calmly pursuing his opponent around a courtyard without ever raising his weapon, until the opponent simply submits. Musashi actually writes about this idea of defeating opponents just with your eyes, or just with your spirit.

Any time a new version of a previously translated work comes out, the obvious question is always why it’s needed. What do you feel your translation in particular offers?

I think my fairly long experience actually practicing Musashi’s style of swordsmanship (at least in a form that has been handed down to us over several centuries – I’m not so reckless as to think that it is exactly what Musashi taught and has not undergone changes) gives me an unusual insight into the text. This is not just a project I’ve decided to tackle as a translator; this is something I’ve been essentially living with for the past fifteen years. I’ve done a lot of research, whenever possible gone back to the very roots, and done my best to retain in the English the aphoristic power of the original, while at the same time keeping as close as reasonably possible to its literal expression, syntax, and structure as well. I feel I’ve been pretty successful in that. I also think I’ve cleared up a few misunderstandings and misreadings that are common in previous translations.

OK, let’s get down to brass tacks. Who’s more awesome – samurai or ninjas? Show your work.

Well, I prefer the term bushi (武士, “war-gentleman”) to samurai (侍, “one who serves, retainer”), and in fact Musashi never uses the latter term. Ninjas were also very cool, but like Musashi’s legend, largely fictionalized. It’s really hard to pin down what was actually true about them. But the bushi, they put it out there; it was standard practice to undergo a period of musa-shugyō (武者修行, “warrior austerities”), traveling the countryside with a minimum of possessions, meager accommodations and food, and only one purpose: to hone their skills in bouts with as many opponents as they could find. I don’t know what’s left of the ninjas’ actual legacy, but the self-imposed trials of the bushi still inspire the same attitude of approaching challenges and endurance through hardship that keeps individual Japanese globally competitive in so many fields. The ninja were apparently originally a sort of proto-democratic communitarians (their communes originally existed outside of the shogun-mandated samurai bureaucracies), and they got very good espionage of all sorts, which is all very excellent. And ended up being a major cultural export, certainly, but I’m not sure if they have made as genuine a contribution to the culture – in the end I think I have to give the awesomeness vote to the bushi.

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