Not Lost in Translation
By Christopher Dow
Most practitioners of the martial arts fall into the beginner to intermediate levels, while some rise even higher in their respective arts, from skillfulness to mastery. And then there are those rarities: prodigies who reach the absolute pinnacle of achievement and beyond.
So it is, also, with martial arts literature. Martial arts authors, from the mediocre to the pedestrian to the competent if not gifted, abound—I'm speaking here about the quality of the literature, not the martial expertise of the authors. It seems as if many martial artists who have reached a certain level of competency want to write a book or two on their art. It's almost like a rite of passage, and no wonder, for writing about a martial art forces the author to examine, re-examine, and more deeply examine the art in question, thereby lending a further learning experience to one's study that can be quite enlightening. I am guilty of this, myself. I think my books are pretty good, but I recognize that there are numerous authors whose experience, depth of understanding, and ability to communicate the ideas and principles underlying their arts far outshine mine. They are like the guiding stars of the heavens.
Until now, I have largely confined my reviews in Taijitu Magazine to authors and their original books, but I also have recognized the efforts of several authors who have been notable translators into English of works on Tai Chi and other martial arts. Yang Jwing-Ming. Douglas Wile, and Stuart Olson, among others, come readily to mind. But no matter how luminous the efforts of these translators, they can’t hold a candle to Paul Brennan, one of those guiding stars within Tai Chi literature. Welcome to Brennan Translations, where, since February 2011, Brennan has been posting translations of Chinese martial arts books and manuals.
Although the earliest text in Brennan's blog is about 340 years old, it is a notable exception, and most of the original works Brennan tackles are from China's Republican era (1912–1949), which I tend to refer to as the Neo-Classical era of Chinese martial arts literature. I've personally witnessed the inception, burgeoning, and development of martial arts literature in English, and the plethora of books on Tai Chi and other martial arts is almost boggling after just fifty years. Apparently, Chinese martial artists through the ages have not been immune to the impulse to author books. Imagining the number of martial arts books and manuals available in English is difficult, but developing a tally of Chinese martial arts books and manuals is impossible. If you count time from the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) who lived circa 2700 BC and wrote treatises on Chinese medicine and martial arts, the Chinese have been writing such stuff about ninety-five times as long as we have.
I don't know if Brennan realizes how daunting his task is—or if he even cares. He just seems to be intent on making as big a dent as possible in the mountain of literature looming before him. Apparently he doesn't grant interviews, which doesn't do much to dispel a vision of him as a translating cyborg operating at a fantastic pace, though he did tell me a few facts about his blog. Toward the beginning of his efforts, several months might have passed between postings, but since 2013, he’s posted one translation almost every month, and sometimes two or three works at the same time. This is no mean feat. Many of the originals of these works can be described as being pamphlets or booklets, but just as many are book-length works, some two to three hundred pages in length.
Remarkably for a martial arts reading public accustomed to paying for published translations, Brennan’s translations are available free on his website. They are in blog form only, and can be read online or printed off the website. "Although there are apparently some pdfs of several of these things floating around online," he told me, "they were made and shared without my permission. I give no pdf option in the site itself. The reason I do not supply downloadable pdfs or make paper publications of these translations is because I often make adjustments and corrections to them. Every new book I work on gives me insights into the ones I have finished. Thus I find it better to simply direct people to the site itself so they will always have access to the updated versions."
Free doesn’t necessarily mean good. In one sense of this, many of the books and manuals Brennan translates are no more informative than the common books or manuals by some of today's modern authors. There are exceptions notable for being either really informative or for being written by an historically significant author—Sun Lutang, for example—but even the less adept or less significant books among these translations provide a wide variety of viewpoints and approaches to the arts they discuss, bringing in each author's individual understandings and ways of expressing ideas. Put differently, a mid-level author can drop a piece of information in such a way that it triggers understanding and advancement in the reader. In addition to being products of a culture in transition over a span of several centuries, these books likewise display an intrinsically historical view of the development of the martial arts during that time. It is significant, then, that Brennan is making them available to those of us who do not read Chinese.
That brings us to the second sense of the idea that free is not necessarily good: One might suspect that the quality of Brennan's work is not high, particular considering his considerable output. I don't speak or read Chinese, so I can't personally compare his translations to the originals, but others have. Violet Li of the Tai Chi Examiner (*) explains that many of the older originals were written in wenyan wen, or Classical Chinese, which was very formal, economical, poetic, and difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, she says, Brennan does a good job of translating without loss of meaning. I can personally judge, however, the quality of the finished product in terms of grammar, diction, flow, and so forth, and I can say that Brennan seems to be competent at the very least, and usually excellent.
His translations appear to be straightforward iterations of their originals without the sort of explanations and commentary that someone like Yang Jwing-ming might append to the text. Such commentary can vastly amplify the meaning of the content, but for anyone interested in just taking in the originals, Brennan has the goods. He does offer occasional historical commentary, however. When the original text alludes to some historical event or some other reference that the average Western reader probably wouldn't know about, Brennan helpfully provides a bit of information to enrich the reader’s understanding of the backstory.
Brennan’s methodology is familiar and used by many translators. He provides the original Chinese text, broken into paragraphs or passages, and follows each of those with its translation. He also includes scans of interior drawings and/or photos, so that the end product best represents the original publication. By his own reckoning, he provides scans of the books' covers only about half the time. "I include scans of calligraphy that appear in the original books, which sometimes features on the cover," he told me. "In those cases, the calligraphy is the focus, and the cover is just along for the ride."
Brennan’s work covers many books that have been translated previously, and it also introduces the Western reading public to many more that have not. And those probably would have remained that way if it wasn't for his efforts. I’ll try to review as many of these as I can, but he’s way ahead of me and even now is cranking out translations faster than I can read and review them. I was tempted to include a list of his work, to date, but I realized how futile that would be. He's constantly adding new material, and any list would soon be obsolete. You'll just have to go to his website to view his offerings.
Those offerings are indexed in several ways. In the main column, he highlights a number of works produce from 1676 to 1963. In the narrower right-hand column, he first lists a handful of his more recent posts. Below that is a much longer list of posting dates ranging, as of this writing, from February 2011 to December 2018. There is no information in this list about the contents of each post, which is something of a detriment since you have to open each one to see what's inside. You might find one translation there, or three. Grouped offerings often are works by a single author. Under this long list of posting dates, which keeps getting longer, is a shorter, more static list of six categories: The Complete Works of Sun Lutang, The Complete Works of Yin Qianhe, Shaolin, Taiji, Xingyi, and Uncategorized. Each of these links open up into its own mini-library.
The system of adding material under its posting date might have served the site adequately early on, but after eight years of furious accretion, the list is getting pretty unwieldy. If I had a suggestion to Brennan, it would be to revise this list into three indexes: one by author, one by title, one by subject. The latter would be little more than a minor expansion of the shorter, six-item list that's already in place. There is a search feature, however, if you know what you're looking for.
While Brennan provided me with some clarification about the site and its contents, you can forget about searching for information on the man himself. He’ll have to remain the B. Traven or Thomas Pynchon of Tai Chi translators. The Brennan Translations site is bare bones, containing only the translations and the several ways they are indexed. Completely lacking is any information on Brennan himself. When Violet Li requested an interview to learn more about the site and his efforts, he declined, writing: “The whole point of my translation blog is to allow the original authors to speak for themselves, and so to do them justice I ought to try to stay in the background.” (*)
Okay, Mr. Brennan, we won’t begrudge you. After all, your work speaks volumes.
Brennan Translations can be found at