Following a disagreement in a recent r/Buddhism thread in which one of Paul Reps and Senzaki Nyogen's Zen Flesh, Zen Bones translations (the 82nd of their "100 Zen Stories": "Nothing Exists") is compared unfavorably to a translation by Lucien Stryk and Ikemoto Takashi of the same anecdote, I decided to see if I could track down the original to consider the differences in detail.

Unfortunately, finding the original wasn't easy. ZFZB itself is no help; Reps does not provide specific sources for any of the Stories. In the introduction he says this:

These stories were transcribed into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand), written late in the thirteenth century by the Japanese Zen teacher Muju (the 'non-dweller'), and from anecdotes of Zen monks taken from various books published in Japan around the turn of the present century.

Since "Nothing Exists" is about two personalities of the Meiji era, it must be from one of those "various books." Here are the two versions under discussion. First, Reps/Senzaki:

Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: 'The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.'

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

'If nothing exists,' inquired Dokuon, 'where did this anger come from?'

And Stryk/Ikemoto, according to michael_dorfman in that thread:

One day, Tesshu, the famous swordsman and Zen devotee, went to Dokuon and told him triumphantly he believed all that exists is empty, there is no you or me, etc. The master who had listened in silence suddenly snatched up his long tobacco pipe and struck Tesshu's head.

The infuriated swordsman would have killed the master there and then, but Dukuon said calmly, "Emptiness is quick to show anger, isn't it?"

Forcing a smile, Tesshu left the room.

Dorfman prefers the latter version, saying:

There's a difference between "nothing exists" and "everything is empty" [...] (and the corresponding "If nothing exists, what gets angry" vs "Emptiness is quick to show anger"). There's a pretty big difference between emptiness and non-existence.

Not having the Stryk/Ikemoto book, I don't know if they identify their sources, but I think I found Reps/Senzaki's source in a 1909 book called Kokkei hyakuwa 滑稽百話 ("One hundred humorous stories"), by one Katō Kyōei 加藤教栄, under the heading "独園鐵舟を打つ" ("Dokuon strikes Tesshū"):


I won't provide a translation of my own, but I'm confident that this text must at least be in the same tradition as Reps/Senzaki's source. It's not so much that the translation matches exactly in all details as that the irrelevant details do. For example, "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist" is not quite the same as "心仏象生畢竟那頭にかある" (the latter is a rhetorical question rather than a flat declaration), but the correspondence of 畢竟 to "after all" at the same place in the sentence is quite striking.

The Stryk/Ikemoto translation follows the structure quite closely, but it seems to announce itself as a relatively free rendition (it contains an "etc.!"), and it is noteworthy that seems to include some details that Reps/Senzaki actually leaves out:

R/S: There is no giving and nothing to be received.
S/I: [T]here is no you or me, etc.

But okay, what about Dorfman's objection? Well, first of all, both Reps/Senzaki and Stryk/Ikemoto actually hit the first "emptiness" note in similar ways:

... 諸法本来空。
R/S: The true nature of phenomena is emptiness.
S/I: [...] all that exists is empty [...]

The real difference is

R/S: If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?
S/I: Emptiness is quick to show anger, isn't it?

Both translations are fairly free, and I think you can make a case for either. A painfully literal translation would be "[This] thing called 'Nothingness' (無) angers easily indeed." It's specifically not the "emptiness" (空) that appears earlier in the story, and these concepts are theoretically distinct, or were at one point; apparently the translation into Chinese and subsequent shoulder-rubbing with Daoist writings (where 無 had a big role) blurred things a bit.

So I'm not convinced that "Emptiness is quick to show anger" is actually that great a translation. On the other hand, Tesshu didn't actually say that "nothing exists." He denied the existence of a long list of things, but not everything.

This is the key point, I think, and so I can agree with Dorfman's main point: the use of "Nothing exists" in the text and even as the title is unfair to Tesshū and misleading as to the point of the story (which isn't, I think, "Ultraradical solipsism is foolish"; it's more like "You can talk the talk, but you can't walk the walk"). I think it's worth noting, though, that Stryk and Ikemoto are unfair to Tesshū in other ways, and needlessly dramatic: the original story doesn't say that Tesshū was literally about to kill Dokuon, after all.



The American Association of Teachers of Japanese has put up a PDF of "Papers from a panel on 'Less Considered Areas of Japanese Literary Translation'". It contains, among other material, two full papers: "Added in Translation: Comparative Translations of Poe's 'The Black Cat' into Japanese", by J. Scott Miller, and "Kanshi in Translation: How Its Features Can Be Effectively Communicated", by John Timothy "Handbook of Classical Japanese" Wixted.

Miller's paper is a worthwhile read but less down in the nitty-gritty than I would have liked (what, no five-way tables showing how each translator handled "mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime - of Agony and of Death"?). After noting that (1) in modern Japan the word kuroneko (black cat) is probably most strongly associated with a moving company of that name, and (2) in Greece they write metaphor on the side of moving vans because metaphores means "transport" in Greek, he explains what he means by "added in translation":

I would like to suggest that Poe's "The Black Cat" became, in a way, a transcultural moving van that relocated irrational fears and emotions into fin de siecle Japan. Poe gains something in translation through the serendipity of the pre-existing, ominous metaphor of vengeful cat spirits. Let us pretend to be nineteenth-century Japanese for a moment, reading either of the then available translations for the first time, and bringing to our reading any number of encounters with stories of Japanese vengeful tales wherein the cat licks the blood of a murdered woman and turns into a demon, then sets out to avenge the victim's murder. Now, as we read Poe's story and imagine the reincarnated black cat Pluto perched on the top of the narrator's wife's corpse walled up inside the basement, we expect the obvious to happen: the cat will lick the wife’s blood. (Actually, after being in there for days, even more gruesome possibilities emerge...) And we naturally assume that the cat, transformed into a demon but trapped within the walls, will do what demons do best—SCREAM—and thereby avenge the wife’s murder. So the ending takes on more than just Poe’s original sense of irony. It gains ghoulish karmic overtones as well.

Pretending to be nineteenth-century Japanese is where I'm a Viking, but I prefer a swings-and-roundabouts model to a simple "added in translation" one. (For example, off the top of my head, if the cat's betrayal is the karmically unmarked way for the story to end, it seems to me that this undermines the eerie shifting of the boundary between sanity/rationality and madness/despair that is, after all, Poe's trademark.) I'm also not sure how to feel about the sustained moving-van metaphor, although I may just be jealous that I didn't think of it first.

Wixted's piece argues, basically, that kanshi (Chinese poetry by Japanese authors) "would be experienced differently, visually and intellectually, and better understood as being dynamic products of a Japanese literary tradition", as well as "more accessible to students of Japanese and Chinese language", if they were presented in translation with the following information:

  1. the kanji for the text, essential to being able to follow and understand it;
  2. kundoku readings of lines, to provide a sense of how the text is apprehended and appreciated as "Japanese";
  3. both barbarized and naturalized English versions of lines, the former via English-language phrase-by-phrase parsing of lines ('English kundoku,' as it were); and
  4. Chinese readings for verse-lines, to bring out the rhythm within lines (in visual blocks reflecting compounds and caesurae) and the rhyme-scheme in the poem's couplets (with highlighted rhyme-words).

An example of what this might look like is on pp 10-11. Obviously we are well into personal-taste-and-intended-purpose territory here. I wholeheartedly agree that including the Chinese text is always beneficial, but I can't really believe that there are many readers who would derive real benefit from both the "barbarized" English version and the kundoku reading, for example. I also think that the poetry suffers greatly from being interrupted by irregularly-sized notes, and would prefer all of the commentary and explanatory material gathered together as footnotes or a separate column. But really my reaction is to question the information selected for inclusion. Why include only a contemporary Chinese pronunciation for the poem? I imagine that that's how these poems get read in China today (same as most English speakers read Shakespeare without trying to reproduce Elizabethan pronunciation), but that doesn't have much to do with how these poems would have been understood in the Nara court, a medieval Buddhist monastery, or an early Meiji literary circle, for example. I have similar issues with the inclusion of kundoku readings; I don't necessarily agree, as Wixted argues on p 6, that including any reading is better than including none, because it strikes me as the sort of thing that naiive readers will mistake for objective truth (although I would not have this objection in cases where what was included was a specific kundoku reading included as part of the source text itself, rather than just the translator's preferred reading).

In short, I am down with the call for more information, but I don't think that Wixted makes a coherent case for his proposed format as the best format to adopt.


Say it in kana

I found an interesting entry in Maeda Isamu's Edogo no jiten (江戸語の辞典, "Dictionary of Edo-period language"): kana de iu, literally "say it in kana". This could mean either "say it in simple language" or "say it without beating around the bush", according to Maeda.

His example sentence is from the 1779 Ekisha san'yū: "Iya nara iya to kana de iinanshi, iya tomo ō tomo iikirinanshi", "If you won't, just say so in kana; yes or no, out with it." I suppose this matches English expressions like "in plain English" quite closely, but with an extra twist in the blurring of the boundary between written and spoken language. (What the expression kana de iu calls to mind, for me, isall those Edo-period illustrated stories for reg'lar folks, where the dialogue is — indeed! — all or nearly all in kana, with kanji reserved for the kanbun preface and so on, although of course you can trace a similar split back all the way to the early all-kana monogatari vs the all-kanji documents of administration and so on.)

It's hard to blame all those mutton-chopped orientalists for having concluded that East Asians think in "ideograms" and so on, when you run into things like this.