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Old 06-05-2008, 01:02 PM   #37
Mike Sigman
Location: Durango, CO
Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 4,123
Re: Kisshomaru as Interpretor of the Founder's Words

Dan Rubin wrote: View Post
I'm afraid that I have long been skeptical of translations by John Stevens, based on an interview that appeared in Aikido Today (v.2, #1, Spring 1988). In that interview, Professor Stevens was asked how he researched O Sensei's life for his book, Abundant Peace.

Professor Stevens replied that "the best, most interesting stories" were those told him by his various teachers over the years. He pointed out that O Sensei himself changed the descriptions of his enlightenment experience over time. He stated that the taped interviews of O Sensei were very difficult to understand, between the poor quality of the tapes and the difficulty in understanding O Sensei; studying the doka and looking at films helped him.

"But," he said, "I suppose I relied mostly on inspiration rather than on pure research. I looked for a unifying view instead of just looking at what O'sensei [sic] did and where."

The book is divided into three sections: The Man, The Martial Artist and The Message.

"The last and most important section is The Message," Professor Stevens said. "Here I tried, not to be objective, but to imagine what O'sensei would say to people if he were speaking English. This was very difficult for me because O'sensei lived in a different world—a world, now lost, peopled with gods and fairies and divinities. I had to appreciate that."

So it seems that Professor Stevens did not really translate O Sensei's words. Instead, he wrote what he thought O Sensei should have said, and would have said, if he could have said it in English.

Shoulda-woulda-coulda. That doesn't sound like great scholarship, to me. If this has been Professor Stevens research philosophy in all of his writing then I fear that, instead of helping readers understand O Sensei and aikido, he has done them both irreparable harm.

Uh oh. But thanks for the story, Dan.

I don't read except for information, in terms of the translated Chinese and Japanese writings that have to do with martial-arts, ki/qi, training methods, and so on. In the old days a lot of the ki/qi stuff was gibberish and while a lot of it sounded similar, a lot of it sounded different. It was confusing and, like most people, I sort of tagged it to eccentricities of Asian thought ("they're different, y'know") and all that.

As I got more experienced and knowledgeable over the years, though, I found a lot of very practical nuggets in some of the writings. It depends on if you understand by what they mean physically by ki/qi. Now not all is useful; a lot of the stuff they're sayings is just parrot-like repetition of old classical sayings in order to show that they know the ropes. And some of the stuff is more cosmology-based. Not to mention that some of the stuff is so obscure *plus* screwed up by the translator's take on things that it's just gibberish.

In the case of John Stevens' translation "The Art of Aikido" Principles and Essential Techniques, I skimmed through it at first looking (as I always do) to see what Stevens did with the discussions on Ki. He totally misses what ki is, but he obfuscates enough in a scholarly manner that he would easily mislead someone who doesn't understand the topic. OK, so once I knew what he knew about the meanings, etc., of ki I went and read his translation, inserting my practical understanding of ki back into places where he used a fuzzy or "spiritual" translation of Ki. There's actually some good stuff in the book, although there was nothing really earthshaking and nothing that deviated from the classical descriptions of ki and what it can do.

The real point to make from the various things that are said is that much of the discussion about ki and kokyu/breath-power is that these things are meant to be physically practiced, not just dreamed and talked about. If you want the power of Aikido, you have to develop your ki through practice and mind and you have to develop the other part of your ki that is "breath power" through training, breathing practices, etc.

I probably should go through that book sometime and jot down the interesting nuggets as I see them and then post them somewhere. I'd have to caveat that a lot of the gokui comments might indeed be interesting to someone looking for Aikido pointers, but from my perspective, most of what is being said are classical admonitions that have to do with position, power, "aiki", and so forth.... stuff that I've encountered in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, and some other arts. I.e., the admonitions are very good, but they're also not Aikido-unique in any real sense. It's classical Asian martial arts, but I mean that in a sense that you wouldn't find it at your local karate school or Shaolin school, etc., because those things are "gokui" there, too.

Generally speaking, a lot of this stuff is like the theory of electromagnetism to an engineer versus the ritual how-to's of an electrical/electronic technician. If you understand the theory, no electrical machine is going to be using any new and unheard-of variation that will baffle anyone who knows the general theory. However, a technician might think that each electrical machine is different because he doesn't understand the overall theory and he's been taught by rote. The point is that while there may be some nuggets in the new book, I wouldn't expect anything to fall outside of the general theory of ki, how it's used and trained, how it relates to an opponent, how it relates (in the classical sense) to the known laws of the universe (and therefore "harmony" with all things), and so on.

Thanks again for the story.


Mike Sigman
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