View Full Version : Understanding and Assumptions

Please visit our sponsor:

AikiWeb Sponsored Links - Place your Aikido link here for only $10!

Peter Boylan
10-03-2016, 08:04 PM
Finished a new blog post about how some of our unconscious assumptions affect our understanding. It's amazing how much we think is natural and proper is just a cultural or linguistic expectation. How much do you think your understanding of Aikido is based on Aikido, and how much is unconscious assumptions from your home culture?


Peter Goldsbury
10-04-2016, 04:47 AM
Hello Peter,

I have a question for you. It starts from the first paragraph of your blog, quoted here for ease of reference.

These are just two of the many translations of the Dao De Ching that have been done in English. No one translation will ever be definitive. Some are much better than others, but I donít think any of them is completely wrong. Each carries something thing of original Chinese, but each also carries much that comes from the assumptions and understandings of the person doing the translation, and the language into which it is translated.

I am curious about your grounds for thinking that some translations are much better than others. I do not necessarily disagree, but I am curious about the assumptions you make (or think you are making). The paragraph makes a strong argument for the relativity of translation, which seems to clash with your judgment about quality.

Best wishes,

10-04-2016, 11:02 AM
There is a scene in The Last Samurai, during the final battle when Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise's character) explains the battle of Thermopylae to Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe's character). In the explanation, Algren asks Katsumoto, "a million men... you understand this number?"

I think we make a great many assumptions when we ingest a foreign culture. That is, that we participate in the culture, but do not become part of it. Translations are a way in which we can ingest a culture but rely upon someone with [presumably] more experience to understand what is being communicated in a greater context than just content. As any dutiful husband will tell you, "That's fine," and "That's fine," communicate entirely different messages, even placing you in mortal danger. The context of the delivery is as important as the content of the message.

I like to think of translations as being "guesses" about what is being communicated, both in context and content. As since we are using movie quotes, I will allow Captain Kirk to clarify my position on the quality of guesses in a dialogue with Bones and Mr. Spock...
Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That's extraordinary.
Spock: [to Dr. McCoy] I don't think he understands.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people's facts.

There are some people whose guesses are better than other's facts...

Peter Boylan
10-07-2016, 11:54 AM
I am curious about your grounds for thinking that some translations are much better than others. I do not necessarily disagree, but I am curious about the assumptions you make (or think you are making). The paragraph makes a strong argument for the relativity of translation, which seems to clash with your judgment about quality.

Hello Peter,

You ask a good question. For years I just relied on what authorities in the field told me were good translations. Now I'm a lot more picky about what constitutes a good translation. The problem with translating context heavy languages, such as Japanese, is that we have to rely on the translator to fill in that context. Judging the quality of a translation means that while I might not be an expert in the language being translated, I do have to have some background in the culture and history of the time and place being translated from. My opinions of translations of things like the Dao De Ching and the Book Of 5 Rings has changed substantially as I've gained a deeper understanding of the cultural and historical context in which they were written. Early on, I filled in blanks with information from own modern culture. I've learned enough about both 17th century Japan, and classical Japanese sword arts, that I can tell when a translator knows anything about those things or is just translating the words and filling in the gaps with his own ideas. Musashi was pretty clear about his subject matter, and if you know about classical kenjutsu, or even modern kendo, the book is pretty concrete. If you don't know about these things, you will see it as being much more abstract.

I guess that is the long way of saying that when I read something in translation, if I really want to understand the quality of the translation and what I'm reading, I have to do some work to learn the cultural and historical background of the work. Translating works for swordsmen without having any background in sword lead to interesting ideas, but not those from the original. The Dao De Ching became a little less mystical when I started learning the history of ancient China. Some of it is quite practical and direct.

The other thing I've learned is to not rely on any one translation. I know will read several different translations to try and get a gestalt from them if I can't read the original.

Peter Goldsbury
10-07-2016, 05:14 PM
Hello Peter,

Thank you for your response. I do not claim to know enough about classical kenjutsu to estimate whether translations of Musashi are accurate or reasonable. However, I learned written Japanese by reading and translating literary works written by the author of these works, who was also a colleague. I used to visit him and read aloud what he had written and then translate it -- with him listening and commenting. So the feedback I received was rather unusual. We then used to have lengthy discussions, even arguments, about how best to render what he had written into English. His style of written Japanese was acknowledged to be very good, good enough to win him prizes, but he was pretty hopeless at translating what he had written into even reasonable English. He knew this and I came along to close the gaps.

My background is the classics and for my doctorate I had to read Plato and Aristotle in the original. By far the best way of making sense of them was to read them in several translations, alongside the Greek. There were in English, French and German. By comparison, Japanese translations of Plato and Aristotle seemed poor -- and the translator of Plato also happened to be the dean of my faculty at Hiroshima University. So we were able to discuss the object and value of his translations. This was of great value for both of us.

Best wishes,