// you’re reading...


Esther Rockett

Esther Rockett left her home in Brisbane to go to Japan for four years to learn traditional Oriental medicine, especially acupuncture. After she studied acupuncture with a Japanese "Sensei" she learnt the Japanese language and eventually became involved in translating her teacher's books on acupuncture. I asked Esther Rockett about her translating and about her favorite books.

READERSVOICE.COM: How did you get involved in translating?

ESTHER ROCKETT: By accident. As I became more deeply involved in study in Japan I graduated to the clinic of a renowned practitioner who was a prolific author of books on an approach called “Meridian Therapy”. From my first exposure to it I was sold on that approach. It’s the most effective system of acupuncture and Chinese Herbs that I have encountered.
When I went to that Sensei’s clinic my Japanese language ability was still limited but I was able to ask questions and understand basic answers.
I hit the poor Sensei with a barrage of questions. Consequently he had one of his assistants compile an extract from his latest textbook that gave me the basic information I was looking for. I was undergoing technical training in the absence of theory.
Although the Sensei had written masses of background material for the approach he was using there was nothing available in English. Even if it were explained to me my language ability wasn’t good enough to understand the details.
The best education is a balance of theory and practice and the lack of access to the deeper material inspired me to improve my Japanese. It wasn’t good enough to be able to read the extract that was compiled for me. So I began reading it one word at a time by looking each word up in the dictionary.
It was very primitive. I realised that translating in itself was an efficient way to study the theory and the language.

RV: What were the books you were translating about?

ER: The nuts and bolts of acupuncture practice at first.
Signs and symptoms, pulse qualities, point selection, traditional physiology, pathology and the like. It’s definitely for practitioners only and aficionados at that. The translation I’m working on now is personally more challenging.
The Sensei built a good part of his reputation on his interpretations of the Oriental Medical Classics.

The Classics are generally around two thousand years old and are the ancient theoretical foundations of Chinese Medicine.
They are written in classical Chinese language, which makes difficult reading. The Classical scholars throughout Asia have been studying and disputing their content for the last two millennia.
Ikeda Sensei’s Handbook Series are interpretations of the Classics that cut through the difficult classical language and make the clinical implications of them available to Japanese readers in much more accessible language. The Classics are available in English translations of wildly variable quality and to my knowledge haven’t been interpreted adequately into English.
I’m currently working on a draft of the translation of the Sensei’s “Nan Jing Handbook”. In English the original is known as the Classic of Difficult Issues.
It tackles some of the gnarlier questions of Chinese Medical Practice. Sensei’s interpretation is not only the most sophisticated I’ve seen but also the easiest to understand and put into practice.
There is simply nothing like it in English or in Japanese for that matter. In order to make a satisfactory translation of Sensei’s interpretation I had to also translate the original Chinese Classic. Translations exist in English but I found myself disagreeing with them on many points. I don’t speak Chinese, so it was slow going with heavy dictionary use .

RV: What difficulties did you face in translating?

ER: Time, disagreements in terminology and discrepancies between the needs of Japanese readers and English readers.
It’s tremendously time consuming. Looking up words takes the most time. I’ve used twelve dictionaries for this translation because their are so many obscure characters.
But I kind of enjoy that part of it because it’s like detective work.
I’ve also had to keep track of how other translators have translated certain terms to try to maintain a kind of standardized terminology.
However the main translators often disagree on how terms should be translated. One of the top guys wants to create a standard terminology but others including myself recognize that the terms can have various meanings dependent on the context.

The classics are very open to interpretation and it doesn’t do them justice to be rigid about their meanings.
Another problem is that the Japanese readers have access to the source texts and can at least muddle through reading them. English readers must depend on translations.
For me that means that I have to fill in gaps where things might be obvious to the Japanese but not to Westerners and I have had to include a translation of the entire Classic. Japanese writers seem to be able to get away with making vague statements and allusions while Westerners prefer things in more certain terms. That is a major cultural difference between Japan and the West.
Westerners are known for readily expressing firm opinions while you can spend years with Japanese colleagues and not know what the heck they are thinking.
Also Classical Chinese is highly allegorical, especially when dealing with abstract concepts.
Many Western translations take the allegories too literally in my opinion. Translators that aren’t Oriental Medical practitioners, treating patients hands on, are the most prone to make misinterpretations. Practitioners that have more developed technical skills also tend to be more intuitive and can interpret the allegorical references with more success.

RV: What books could you recommend about Japan?

ER: Japanese people think and behave very differently to what I was used to. I found that studying Japanese religion gave me a lot more insight into why the Japanese think the way that they do.

Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples by Hajime Nakamura although written in 1964 is considered a classic.
It also covers India, China and Tibet.

The Cult at the End of the World by David Kaplan and Andrew Marshall is a pretty horrifying account of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. On the subject of cults Captive Hearts, Captive Minds is a helpful book for those recovering from cult indoctrination.

Finally, on a more positive note, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a collection of Zen stories and koans that makes for interesting reading.