Sunday, May 23, 2010

Books feature: Renowned translator of Japanese literature moves to China's 'source of sources'

William Scott Wilson.

By Chauncey Mabe
‬ ‭
‬After the Bible,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Tao Te Ching is the second most translated text in the world,‭ ‬and certainly it is the most famous and influential book of ancient Chinese wisdom in the West.‭ ‬Why,‭ ‬then,‭ ‬with dozens of versions already available,‭ ‬would we need a new one‭ – ‬especially by a translator who made his name in classical Japanese samurai literature‭?‬

‭“‬My friends all ask that same question,‭” ‬says William Scott Wilson,‭ ‬the renowned translator of‭ ‬Hagakure:‭ ‬The Book of the Samurai,‭ ‬The Unfettered Mind:‭ ‬Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master,‭ ‬and‭ ‬The Book of the Five Rings,‭ ‬among other medieval samurai classics.

One reason,‭ ‬says Wilson,‭ ‬who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and now lives in Miami,‭ ‬is the deep connection between the Tao and Zen Buddhism,‭ ‬which,‭ ‬in turn exerts a strong influence on the Japanese martial arts tradition.‭ ‬In a way,‭ ‬he says,‭ ‬all his samurai translations have led him back in time toward the‭ ‬Tao Te Ching.

‭“‬Going on to the‭ ‬'Tao' is like going to the source of sources,‭” ‬Wilson says.‭ “‬I always wanted to do this,‭ ‬but didn’t think anyone would pay me to do it.‭ ‬It’s one of the three great Chinese books:‭ ‬The‭ ‬'Tao,‭' ‬the‭ ‬'I Ching,' and the‭ ‬'Analects‭' ‬of Confucius.‭”‬

The Tao Te Ching, translated by William Scott Wilson.


Born in‭ ‬1944,‭ ‬Wilson was a political science major at Dartmouth in‭ ‬1966‭ ‬when a friend invited him on a three-month kayak trip along the coast of Japan.‭ "‬That trip was an eye-opener,‭" ‬says Wilson.‭ "‬I didn't know what was there for me,‭ ‬but I knew it was something.‭"‬

Wilson earned‭ ‬a‭ ‬bachelor‭’‬s in Japanese literature and language at the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in Monterey,‭ ‬Calif.‭ ‬He studied Edo period philosophy at the Aichi Prefectural University in Nagoya,‭ ‬Japan.‭ ‬He translated his first book,‭ ‬Hagakure,‭ ‬an‭ ‬18th-century martial arts classic,‭ ‬to fulfill an academic requirement‭ –‬ with no thought it might be published.

But since being published by Kodansha in‭ ‬1979,‭ ‬Hagakure‭ ‬has never been out of print.‭ ‬While he’s had to supplement his income with other jobs,‭ ‬Wilson has steadily built up a body of classical samurai translations.‭ “‬I've made sacrifices to do what I love,‭" ‬Wilson says.‭ "‬You do what you can to keep doing this.‭ ‬I've been fortunate in recent years,‭ ‬when Kodansha issued new editions of all my books.‭ ‬They look really nice.‭"‬

Wilson’s big break came in‭ ‬1999,‭ ‬when indie film director Jim Jarmusch made the Zen thriller‭ ‬Ghost Dog,‭ ‬starring Forest Whitaker as a mob hit man who reads‭ ‬Hagakure and lives by its warrior code.‭ ‬After the movie came out,‭ ‬sales for‭ ‬Hagakure went‭ "‬way up and remained up for years,‭" ‬Wilson says.

Gradually Wilson’s interest expanded beyond samurai literature to related fields‭ – ‬first to Nō drama‭ (‬The Flowering Spirit:‭ ‬Classic Teachings on the Art of Nō‭; ‬2006‭)‬,‭ ‬then to ancient Chinese maxims‭ (‬The‭ ‬36‭ ‬Secret Strategies of the Martial Arts,‭ ‬ancient sayings collected by Hiroshi Moriya‭; ‬2008‭) ‬and ancient Chinese philosophy‭ (‬The Unencumbered Spirit,‭ ‬by Hung Ying-ming,‭ ‬published earlier this year.‭)‬

Because classical Japanese writing is derived from Chinese,‭ ‬Wilson had to study both languages,‭ ‬and therefore is qualified to translate each.‭ “‬I picked Chinese as my second language for my master‭’‬s,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬I wanted to learn to read Chinese.‭ ‬It’s just a beautiful,‭ ‬wonderful language.‭”‬

Hagakure, translated by William Scott Wilson.

Wilson is one of those rare people who seem born with a gift for languages.‭ ‬In high school he taught himself Spanish in six weeks‭ “‬for fun.‭” ‬To illustrate a point about the Chinese concept of‭ “‬te‭” ‬and how it’s related to the English word‭ “‬virtue,‭” ‬he recites a few lines from Chaucer’s‭ ‬Canterbury Tales‭ – ‬in what sounds like flawless Middle English.

What really distinguishes Wilson’s translation of the‭ ‬Tao is his attempt to push it‭ ‬300‭ ‬years deeper into antiquity.‭ ‬Written about‭ ‬500‭ ‬B.C.,‭ ‬supposedly by the legendary sage Lao Tzu,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Tao exists only in the‭ “‬new‭” ‬text of‭ ‬200‭ ‬B.C.‭ ‬Wilson wondered what he might get if he recast the text into the archaic characters in use at the time the original was written.

‭“‬I said,‭ ‬‘Let’s go back to the source,‭’ ‬” Wilson says.‭ “‬I had books with ancient characters and etymology.‭ ‬Maybe I could find new meaning,‭ ‬or at least nuance,‭ ‬if I can translate it as it might appear to its first readers.‭”‬

Much of Wilson’s version is similar to existing translations,‭ ‬but he does find nuance,‭ ‬if not altogether new meaning,‭ ‬in the archaic characters.‭ ‬For example,‭ ‬one of the key principles of the‭ ‬Tao is to‭ “‬act without acting,‭ ‬to go on intuition rather than rationality,‭” ‬Wilson says.‭ “‬If we think we have it,‭ ‬we don’t.‭”‬

One version of that thought,‭ ‬which repeats throughout the‭ ‬Tao,‭ ‬is to act without relying on anything.‭ ‬Through the use of archaic characters,‭ ‬Wilson realized the word usually translated as‭ “‬act‭” ‬is closely related to the word for‭ “‬fabricate,‭” ‬which allows for a fine adjustment in connotation.

‭“‬I used the word‭ ‘‬fabricate‭’ ‬instead of‭ ‘‬act‭’ ‬in the theatrical sense,‭” ‬Wilson says.‭ “‬That was the revelation:‭ ‬It doesn’t just mean mindless acting.‭ ‬It means act without making something up.‭ ‬Whoever put this book together felt strongly about this idea.‭ ‬It’s one of the lodestones of the‭ ‬‘Tao.‭’ ‬”

Wilson’s translations of classical Japanese‭ – ‬and now Chinese‭ – ‬literature have proven so distinguished they have been translated themselves into‭ ‬18‭ ‬languages,‭ ‬including Magyar,‭ ‬Lithuanian,‭ ‬and,‭ ‬in some cases,‭ ‬modern Chinese‭ ‬— which,‭ ‬ironically,‭ ‬Wilson cannot read.

‭“‬Modern Chinese has been simplified down so much I won’t even look at it,‭” ‬Wilson says.‭ “‬It’s lost all its charm.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Communists ordered it made so simplified they wiped out‭ ‬2,000‭ ‬years of Chinese literature.‭ ‬All it’s good for is‭ ‬Communist propaganda.‭”‬

Still,‭ ‬Wilson is grateful for every translation.‭ ‬Take the Magyar edition of‭ ‬Hagakure,‭ ‬which earned him,‭ ‬in total,‭ ‬a check for‭ ‬$66:‭ “‬If I hadn’t been so broke,‭ ‬I would have framed the check and hung it on my wall.‭”‬

Chauncey Mabe is the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel.‭ ‬He can be reached at‭ ‬cmabe55‭@‬yahoo.com.‭ ‬Visit him on Facebook.‭

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