Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lost in Translation

The Bible is a great example of what can happen.

The original was most likely written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Roman.
After centuries of being hand-copied, the Bible was brought to the masses courtesy of the printing press, which would have meant original copies done in Latin and German. Now the bible is available in more than 438 languages, with a variety of different editions.


I am not being deliberately anti-christian here. I am merely using the Bible as an example, and I am only really interested interested in what we martial artists can learn from this example.

There is most likely a lot of symbolism and hidden meaning in the Bible. Most of it is now lost due to the several steps of translation required to get a single-language version for everyone to read. What got lost?

Even recent books like Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code" suggest that subtle differences in the use of a Hebrew word could have far reaching ramifications in understanding what the original authors' intentions were.

For most of us in the martial arts world educated in the west, we are bereft of native instruction in what we do. If we are learning karate, we are most likely not learning it from Okinawans. This has implication in the linguistic, cultural, and martial aspects of our studies. Frankly, no matter how good our western teacher is, they are unlikely to have had full exposure to the system with its cultural/spiritual/historical linkages. Sadly, many people are taught by only lower ranking belts (less than 5th dan) which is unthinkable in any traditional school. These younger belts can instruct the basics of technique, but would never have been taught the very deep meanings behind techniques, or anything more than the fundamentals of the surrounding culture their art embodies. The teacher cannot take you beyond his/her own limits of knowledge. They should, however, guide you in the right direction.

For most westerners, the lack of language skill, and/or a certain racism/prejudice on either side can mean that the full system was never transmitted. This is amplified by the fact that most westerners did not commit the time and energy needed to master the art except at the surface/technical level and so entire portions of knowledge were lost. Lost to those teachers, it was also lost to their students, and down the line. In the 3rd generation and beyond, most students have no way to recover, and become limited to only a portion of the original art.

So much is lost in translation due to this diaspora that we are in jeopardy today.
Modern martial arts focus on combat effectiveness (Krav Maga being one example) often at the expense of any moral or ethical education needed to control it.

I encourage every martial arts student to:
  • be very concerned with the credentials of any prospective teacher - check them out!
  • be mindful of the ethical/moral character of teachers and other role models for yourself and your children
  • continue to do outside research on what you study using libraries and internet
  • learn the native languages of the arts you study so you can dig deeper and access material in the original language
  • travel to the countries whose arts you study and develop a deeper understanding of the culture and history that makes them what they are
Martial Arts is a lifelong journey of exploration. The quest for the truth is not easy. Never stop learning. Don't get LOST IN TRANSLATION

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