I began to read a thread on Aikidojournal.com's old forums, Are O'Sensei's thoughts too abstract? while searching for concepts of Japaneseness on Aikido. Let's set that aside for this text. What I ended up stumbling upon is a real-world problem where a speaker/author is dead and others genuinely want to understand his philosophies. I never got past the first page.. and probably not five posts in, when I wrote all of this. Exhausted, I'll just let this little bit stay as it is.
Aikido's founder, Morihei Ueshiba, wrote only two works which cover his philosophy in depth in his own words, and both are only available in Japanese.[ 1 ]TODO - What are the titles of the two works written in Ueshiba's words, in Japanese? It can also be asserted that his writing may be difficult even for native Japanese readers. He was also interviewed and did public speaking.
Translations of Ueshiba's works have been done by a number of people:
- John Stevens
- William Gleason
Of course, the obvious problem would be the various barriers which translation presents:
- Historical context
Can anyone truly understand O'Sensei's philosophy, and can they understand it enough to be able to communicate it effectively? Think of how difficult even a good translation of a classical Greek work can be. Certainly multiple translations would help, but that would only serve to illuminate how difficult translation is and how much personal expression from the translator is relied upon.
I like to think of translation as also being a kind of Contemporization. After all there are concepts in other languages which don't Truly survive the cultural and linguistic barriers they are brought across. I believe it is in the audience's best interest for the translator to adapt the work so as to be more understandable by their audience.
This is true also with Japanese as a language and culture. I have read stories from people who have lived in Japan for decades and how they have come to understand that native Japanese feel that nobody could truly adopt their culture because of the intricacies. This is, of course, true to some extent and I believe such a thing myself when it comes to people coming to my homeland. It's no insult, but there are subtleties which even native people are only peripherally aware of which even though hard work by a native is still difficult to grasp.
For a native Japanese speaker there would still be intricacies of their own culture which they would have to persue. Quirks of language aside, historical and cultural context need to be learned. Imagine the difficulty for a non-native. They may have an interesting problem in that they do need to learn a significant amount, and yet an outsider must realise the full extent of their outside-ness. Such a person would not make any assumptions about language and culture and may have a curious advantage over a native speaker. They know they know nothing, and they also know their target audience very well. It could be suggested that a native Japanese person would face problems from another angle in that they have a non-Japanese audience they need to translate for.
An obvious suggestion is the collaboration of these two kinds of person. Let us fantasize for a while that we don't have any logical restrictions. We have teams of brilliant students of and from various cultures with all the time and tools they need. Interestingly, aside from proper collaboration this is something like what has existed for things like the translation of ancient Greek texts.
We would have people who understand both sides.. one group which is native Japanese and one which is native .. uh.. ok let's say they're all Canadian and are native English speakers. I suppose I just stumbled upon another barrier: The target audience's culture. Still, it can be thought that if the translation (or transliteration, or contemporization) is done right, then it's general enough to be read by anyone similar to the target audience. i.e. Canadian=British, in a loose sense, because they both speak English natively. Maybe having a target culture would be important so that obscure metaphor can be used to illicit better understanding from the audience. Well.. I still maintain that a translator really translates for themselves and it's a by-product that others can follow along as well.
With a translator of one, even if it were a hobbyist translating for themselves, they would need to absorb everything peripheral to the topic at hand. To understand Ueshiba they would need to absorb elements of language, culture and history applicable to the moments in his lifetime. It gets even more complicated when they need to realise that all those elements are context-sensitive.. if they read something early on in his life they must understand with a mindset which is different than when used when reading something late in his life. He as a person has changed, his culture has changed and the historical context is different.
Aah, I mentioned another complexity. He as a person. It can be said that one can only be understood by one's friends, and that the subtleties of character are not truly graspable by a third party. True understanding would have to somehow include understanding the character of the person being learned. Very few translations of philosophy can take this into account. Frankly, because many authors are dead before their works get translated broadly enough for the demand to be there.
After Ueshiba died, he left interested friends. These friends, however, only themselves saw pieces of his personality. I've seen writing from different people which each themselves touch upon the personalness of their relationship and yet they are different from one another. How can this be? Ueshiba must have had different "hats" or "masks" which were worn for different audiences. This gives a different flavour to each of those audiences. So no matter how close any one friend could be they only see so much of the whole. Again, I can see how collaboration would be important.
Yet all of this assumes that it is important to understand the insides and personality of the person being translated. It can easily be argued that this is not entirely necessary. After all, the writer is himself writing for a broader audience so they would not use language, concepts and culture which is unique to them and their circle of friends. Reading a diary may be entirely different, though.
This still assumes that the person is truly competant in self-expression without the need to fall back on their own personalness. It should be possible for a person to express themselves without relying on their internal personalness, but it would be difficult for them to express themselves without cultural or historical intricacies being expressed. Certainly language is an obvious barrier. Perhaps the writing can be done very loosely, to make translation easier.. but then how philosophically expressive could it be?
So an interested person, one who wants to understand the philosophies of the writer, would need to learn the language and culture and history and anything peripheral to the person or topics they wrote on. They would need to fall in love with the research and pursue it to every possible end. Only then could they fully understand. Obviously, this is not the solution for everyone.
Many people would read translations of the person's works and then loosely interpret things for themselves, trying to find ground which is common between their own self and the person they are interested in. If done honestly, this can yield excellent results. I have read texts and felt that I understood well, and then later I was surprised to learn that the text I read is a translation! I believe that a good translation still exhibits qualities of the original which are "good enough" for the reader.
But what if "good enough" isn't good enough? What if different translations subtly disagree? What if a person were truly capable of understanding the different translators' viewpoints so well that they saw these subtle differences? They would then be forced to translate for themselves.
To be honest, I don't see the value in pursuing philosophies this closely. I always thought of the idea of "philosophy" to be one which is personal, one which is dynamic just like one's opinion in anything should be. I think of the idea of reading philosophy as my trying to understand various viewpoints, then bringing up my own philosophies and their various opinions and biases and comparing, contrasting and adjusting as necessary. This is how I view learning in general.
It can be said that one closely understands the writer when while comparing and contrasting ideas between oneself and the writer, one finds that one's opinions and ideas are close to theirs. This is probably more an accident than through intention though.
Of course, one good way to bring one's opinions closer to whom is studied is to do what they did. Of course, this doesn't really apply in many cases.. but in our example case, by studying Aikido, one surely would come closer to the primary part of Ueshiba's philosophies. An argument against this would be the indication of the wide varieties of Aikido. I suppose one would have to pursue Aikido for itself and not as what is being taught.. to somehow bend oneself towards the trueness of the study instead of the overt lessons. This is, however, not a complete solution to learning the philosophies of the person. This does not quite reveal the cultural and historical and personal contexts.. but perhaps studying what Ueshiba taught is the most true way to learn his philosophy.
But what value is it to truly learn another's philosophy? I think that when reading the works of another one learns more about one's self. This comparison and contrasting which I spoke of is an adventure of self-awareness which the reader undergoes. I think therein is the value of reading from another. New ideas are presented, of course, and it is also important to broaden one's repertoire of ideas.
What is the value of any of it? Few would truly wish to abandon all that they are to become what they study. Surely, few authors would write with the intention of destroying the uniqueness of each member of their audience and replacing them with replicas of their philosophy. So instead of this absolute becoming of a philosophy, one wishes to learn from the philosophy. True and Pure understanding is impossible anyway, so learning the best of a philosophy is an excellent goal.
It is this "learning the best of a philosophy" which can dismiss much concern in the difficulty of learning from a person. It isn't important for one to thoroughly become person being studied.. to casually dismiss oneself in preference for those beliefs. It is important to attend to those philosophies and learn from them.. to integrate them into oneself. There is more benefit in truly believing something through this study then blindly following a philosophy without having absorbed its qualities by comparing and contrasting and then accepting them into one's own beliefs. It is the author's intention to persuade, not to demand.