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Old 07-06-2009, 11:10 AM   #1
George S. Ledyard
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Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Posts: 2,620
Japanese Aikido Teachers - Translation

Some friends and I were joking about the idea of having someone do simultaneous translation for the Japanese teachers we train with. Between the English as a second language issue, the Japanese tendency to be oblique rather than direct, and the lack of Japanese language understanding on the part of most of the students, much instruction is murky at best and often the point is missed entirely.

As an example... Ikeda Sensei will say "now, make them light". What he means is to get them up off their base, to disconnect them from their grounding. When compared to the level of detail offered 15 years ago or so this is a great improvement. We went over a decade in which we were told to "just catch it". Then Sensei would show us. Over and over, he'd show us. But for most of us, it just didn't sink in. He kept getting better, more subtle, smaller and smaller movement, and it got harder and harder to "see" what he was doing.

So when we were joking about having simultaneous translation we decided that one of us would sit off to the side and "translate" what was said into more concrete terms. For instance, when Ikeda Sensei would say "make them light", I might say "what Sensei means to say is: reach in and touch their spine with your energy, now relax and receive the energy of the connection into your spine, run your energy up your back side to make them light and turn your hips to move them. Ok Sensei, please proceed..."

Some teachers simply don't explain. Some won't even show you more than once. O-Sensei was like that. You are expected to figure it out based on the combination of
observation (by watching) and feel (by taking ukemi). I think the success of this level of transmission is self evident based on the large numbers of people who mastered the principles at the level of the Founder. (That's a joke, son, aah say, that's a joke).

But even when many Japanese teachers try to break out of how they, themselves, were trained, you often find that people who trained largely on the intuitive model are not very good at breaking things down, at least verbally. My own teacher, Saotome Sensei, sees things holistically. When he tries to be helpful, he'll give you an instruction which I might recognize as having five or six different components, all of which are crucial to the successful execution of the technique in question, but which most folks simply won't understand.

It's not just in the technical arena that there is the "translation gap". We were at a seminar once at which testing took place. One person's weapons work was particularly abyssal. I mean, really truly, off the charts bad. I would have flunked him and read his teacher the riot act. But often, in these situations, the whole Japanese "group cohesion" thing kicks in. No one wants to embarrass the student, his teacher, cast a negative pall over the event, etc. So Sensei got up after the test and took the katana off the shomen and proceeded to give a twenty minute lecture...

"Japanese sword, so beautiful, but so deadly. Life and death so close together..." etc. Now, I got the point of the lecture, but it was clear that most of the folks present were completely mystified. If I had been able to translate I would have said, "What Sensei means to say is that your sword work was truly awful, you should go out on the parking lot and commit seppuku and if any teacher here EVER sends someone to test in front of me who is this unprepared again, I'll send that teacher back to the kyu ranks...."

Or the time when Sensei stopped everyone right in the middle of a technique and delivered another long lecture on "makoto". The cause of this was a complete lack of intention in the attacks on the part of most of the participants. He went on at length on the subject. The problem was that most of the folks either didn't know what "makoto" was at all, or they only understood the term in its narrow form translated as "sincerity". IKt was a truly amazing lecture I must say... but only the most senior folks understood what he was getting at and they weren't the big offenders. Had I been able to translate for him, I might have said "Your attacks are completely lacking in intention, they have no power or function, energetically they are completely false. Training with you when you attack that way is not only not beneficial for your partner but it is actively detrimental." That was pretty much the gist of what Sensei meant with his lecture but it went right over most folks heads. I over heard one fairly experienced person comment afterwords comment that he felt that he didn't understand why Sensei thought people didn't care about what they were doing... The larger meaning of "makoto" as single minded, clear intention, commitment, etc escaped hhim. And he was one of the worst offenders in terms of delivering what we fondly refer to as "shomen no uchi" style attacks.

Then there is the misunderstanding about what is meant when Sensei smiles or looks disgusted and harangues you. Most folks like it when Sensei comes by and smiles and moves on. "Hah! I must have it right..." They really hated it when Sensei gets on their case about something. "Oh, I am a total screwup... I'll never get this..." They go home happy when Sensei seems happy and they feel incompetent when Sensei comes down on them for something.

In fact what is often happening is that when the teacher doesn't correct you, it means that he has given up on you. You have been relegated to the category of hopeless. So he smiles and wonders to himself why the kami have sent him such incompetents as students? When the Sensei decides to actually take notice of you and rain all over your technique, questioning your competence, commitment, ability, and perhaps suggesting that quitting might be a less painful path for both you and him, he is actually thinking that there might be some kernel of hope that you will turn out ok and you are worth his effort.

Since it is pretty much out of the question for the "simultaneous translation" thing to actually happen, students really need to take responsibility for their owqn understanding of what is being taught. If you don't think you got it, ask someone who did. Try to read as widely as possible so that you have a broader understanding of what the Japanese terms mean. Read everything Peter Goldsbury Sensei has written about how the Japanese process things. Assume Sensei is talking about you when he is lecturing. Find someone with good technical and verbal skills to break down what the teacher is saying for you. Grab these seniors after class and ask them to explain, don't just walk off in a haze. Between language issues, different models of what constitutes "teaching", and a tendency towards making things oblique rather than clear, folks are missing out of an awful of instruction that is being put forth but not connecting with the intended target. And in the Japanes model, that's your problem, not theirs.

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