I’ve been meaning to read and review this book for a while and I finally got around to it!
The scrolls of Five Rings was written by the sword master and samurai Miyamoto Musashi around 1643. They are the records of his own beliefs and practices related to martial arts and combat that he passed onto his own students. The majority of his work talks about how to swordfight, but it also talks about mindset. His teachings are influential because they can even be applied to aspects of everyday life, not just martial arts.
These teachings are still studied today by a range of martial artists and his writings are considered an important part of Japanese history. His work has also inspired numerous films, novels, and games.
There are a few English translations of Musashi’s work and in 2020 Amber Books published a brand new translation by Maisy Hatchard.
Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
translation by Maisy Hatchard
Before I even get to the translation I need to talk about the beautiful binding of this new edition!!! Loot at it!
This edition comes to £19.99/$24.95 but the binding is so nicely done with thick red hardback and really nice paper. The pages themselves are double thick, which I thought was a little odd at first but quickly got used to them.
The book is separated into five chapters, The Scroll of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Expanse. Each chapter focuses on the various ways and arts, and how one should thinks about and approach the methods outlined in each scroll.
This book also includes a really interesting introduction about this new translation.
A Focus on Accessibility
The introduction explains how Miyamoto Musashi always intended his works to be accessible to everyone. So that anyone might follow his teachings, no matter what their background may be. As such the publishers hired Hatchard to translate with accessibility in mind and instructed her to translate it so no footnotes were needed.
Adding information to a translation (often to avoid footnotes) is a very common technique. This occurs when the author of the original text assumes their audience already knows something. However, the audience of another culture might not automatically know what the author is referring to. Additional information is added so the audience of another culture understands the text the same way as the audience of the original.
Addressed to Everyone
Another little touch is the use of “they” instead of “he”. Or “person/people” instead of “man/men”. This is something I wouldn’t have noticed this if Hatchard hadn’t pointed it our herself;
“I consciously chose to use the neutral “they” instead of “he”, and looked for words that wouldn’t exclude the many non-male participants in history. I did use male-oriented terms if I felt they had more linguistic impact, but rarely could I not find something equally as interesting in neutral terms.” – Localising Musashi’s Five Rings by Maisy Hatchard
Japanese does not use gendered language. Subject markers like “kare” (he) are only used to refer to a specific person. As such, English often has to add these to general sentences for the text to make sense. As Musashi himself wanted his teachings to be followed by various people, including women, it makes more sense to use gender neutral “they” rather than “he”.
His students at the time might have all be male, and women at the time probably weren’t educated to read his texts, but I appreciate this conscious effort to make it accessible to a modern audience. It’s in keeping with his desire that all people might learn from his work. Especially when you consider the wide variety of people who have studied and been inspired by his teachings over the last 377 years.
A Clear Voice
I’ve read one other translation of The Book of Five Rings (as I mentioned, there are a large number of them) but I felt it was difficult to read partially because it was so stilted. You often find this is more direct translations. The English isn’t wrong and the translation is accurate, yet the writing feels cold.
I didn’t realize this until I started reading Harchard’s Five Rings where I could hear Musashi’s voice as I read it.
Musashi wrote these texts when he was 60 so he has a regal yet warm tone that carries a lot of wisdom behind it.
“Generally speaking, however, I gather that the current generations of samurai believe that their path is simply a wholehearted acceptance of death.” (p.g 11)
This text is written by Musashi from his perspective. In Japanese the subject “I” is often not used (which is reflected in the other translation I’ve read.) But as these texts were written by Musashi himself about his own experiences and knowledge, then using the first person perspective in the English helps the readers hear his voice.
This also helps in overall readability as it no longer feels like a dry textbook, but a story.
Accuracy That is Easy to Understand
Too often I see people argue that creative, easier to read translations are not as “accurate” as stilted direct translations. The term “direct translation” itself implies a word-for-word translation. Yet this does not always mean a “direct” translation is “accurate.”
You can tell Hatchard but a lot of research into this translation to make it as accurate and educational as possible.
When I read the other translation, one section jumped out at me which in another translation I read was translated as;
“There are four Ways in which men pass through life: as gentlemen, farmers, artisans and merchants.” (Kathartika edition)
In Five Rings Hatchard translated this as;
“Broadly speaking, there are four Ways to make a living in the world: that of the farmer, merchant, samurai or artisan.” (p.g 13)
What stuck out to me the most was the “gentlemen” (or “gentleman warrior”) vs “samurai”. These conjure very different images. I looked up the Japanese for this and Musashi originally wrote the four kanji compound 士農工商 “Shinoukoushou“. You can read more about this Asian classification of the “four occupations” on Wikipedia, but in Japan at that time (the Edo period) the 士 “Shi” referred to “samurai”.
Another difference that jumped out to me was the use of “trooper” vs “solider”. Perhaps it was a more common term when that version of The Book of Five Rings was translated, but “trooper” conjures a different image in my mind from “soldier”. It made it pause to try and gather what the author was talking about.
I find differences in interpretations of translations personally interesting. In a way the Kathartika edition translation is also accurate, but it creates a different impression of the text. The impression created in the target reader’s mind is important to me as it impacts one’s understanding. Which is also why I personally prefer Hatchard’s approach. Making the text more personable and readably helps the reader’s understanding of the source text.
This touches back to my comment on voice, but oh my goodness it’s so beautifully written!!!
Hatchard has not just chosen her words carefully but the overall structure of chapters, paragraphs, and sentences is like poetry. It’s not only readable but it’s enjoyable to read.
Take the sections “The Strategic Way of the Warrior as Equated to Carpentry”. “Equated to Carpentry“. I might be a massive nerd but “equated to” feels so poetic yet smooth.
Every sentence and paragraph seems to flow into each other. Themes are mirrored and balanced between sentences and sections. These emphasize certain points while also conveying a classic tone. But it’s not overly done so the text is still easy to digest.
Musashi’s original work in Japanese was also a work of wisdom and poetry. It’s incredibly fitting that this tone be carried over in the English translation.
Overall Impression of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, translation by Maisy Hatchard
One reason I didn’t get around to reading this sooner was, I admit, because I thought I would be bored. And was I wrong!
I found Hatchard’s writing not just palatable, but practically invigorating. I was drawn to read more and enjoyed this classic text in no time at all. The original work is very short anyway, but bad writing can make even the shortest text feel like a slog. I did not feel that in the slightest with this translation.
Hatchard also retains a lot of Japanese terms while explaining them within the text. There’s also Japanese text scattered throughout the book. Those studying Japanese language might also find it educational in that regard.
If you have any interest in classical Japanese texts, language, samurai, or Musashi’s works, then I highly recommend picking up this beautiful edition by Amber Books.