Translation and the Way of Tea

“Translation is always treason,” Kakuzo Okakura wrote in his Book of Tea, luckily for me, in English. Writing in the early 20th century, Okakura was a Japanese scholar and art critic whose strong English meant he could speak directly to a Western audience without fear of being subjected to “translation,” which could (and often still does) frequently mean problematic Orientalism, obscuring the true message in Western analogues and an obsessive need to “mystify” and dramatize.

As one small example of Western Orientalism at work in translation, one could look at a 1958 translation of a poem by Wang Wei, a Chinese Buddhist scholar who lived around 700 CE. This four-line poem, which has famously been the parent to numerous translations by Western poets and scholars alike, is made up of deliberately simple, eternal images. And as with any good poem, each word carries meaning, none are superfluous. And yet, one pair of translators could not resist augmenting such simple phrases as “green grass” to “jade-green grass,” and insinuate that a simple mountain must be “lonely.” (“Surely a Western conceit,” writes Eliot Weinberger 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.)

All of this to mean it is a great relief to know the beautifully written Book of Tea is exactly as its author intended it, without the worry or need to carefully audit the words of another and question their accuracy.

Obviously I struggle on occasion with the morality of translation. But I’ll get to that later.

For now, tea. For so many it seems the word “tea room” invokes images of elderly white women, dwarfed by gaudy hats, surrounded by doilies, indulging in a sugar-and-cream laden affair while discussing the latest Jonathan Sparks or not-so-latest Jane Austen.

But those British-style tea rooms can hardly be said to reflect the truth of tea, or at least, the significance of tea. This is where Okakura so deftly steps in, with a treatise deeply relevant even 110 years after its publication.

I first discovered the Book of Tea in one of these British tea rooms, a uniquely Eastern voice amongst the books of “manners” and recipes for Earl Grey shortbread. That in itself was enough to draw me to it instantly. I can’t say what in my early life initially made me such a life-long tea devotee, but I can say that my interest always remained firmly on the more austere, natural aesthetics and approach of tea’s Asian origins. So when faced with a Japanese book on tea, I was all over it.

However, where I had hoped for something that would maybe talk about the creation of matcha or provide a list of the various plantations in Japan and their history, I got something much more. Book of Tea is, at its core, a philosophical document, combining historical fact, religious theory, and wonderfully scathing social critique (it is so refreshing to see someone bite back against the West’s claims of cultural supremacism, especially for its time period). The experience of reading this book for the first time was like reading a successful translation of my own thoughts: here was someone articulating a system of interacting with the world that I could, without any hesitation or conflict of interest, embrace whole heartedly. It provided guidance for a life I hadn’t yet figured out how to live.

Okakura describes this system as “Teaism.” However the word Teaism is a creation of Okakura’s meant specifically for Westerners who he, probably rightly, believed would be off-put by a closer approximation, wabi sabi.

So let’s return to translation and Orientalism, and my strange anxious drive to speak every language on Earth because translation is treason, and is by nature an obscuring force.

We Westerners love our “isms.” Especially now more than ever, words ending in –ism are defining our lives. We fight against isms, we embrace isms, we desperately need isms to make sweeping definitions of our world and people within it. Sometimes, this is very helpful. It helps us identify the enemy, place their small actions into a broader ism spectrum, make the appropriate accusations, and properly orient ourselves on the other side. All too often though, isms become the means to end a conversation, stop dialogue. To rest within the boundaries of an ism is to cease the constant questioning and re-evaluating that must be a part of life in order for anything of positive impact to get done on this infuriatingly frustrating planet.

So in light of this, Okakura has unwittingly created a dichotomy in the word Teaism, for the philosophy itself is one of constant change, acceptance, and harmony. To say that I am a “teaist,” apart from being laughable, could instantly insinuate that I have established my belief system and have no interest in ever changing it. It could mean that if someone else declared the same, I would align myself with them, without questioning whether or not their understanding of Teaism truly relates to mine.

More troubling though, using the word Teaism intentionally avoids attempting to translate the original term wabi sabi, though Okakura’s reasoning for doing so is sound. Humanity has a pathetic tendency to mock anything unfamiliar to them (how many times during the course of studying German have I faced the tiring joke, “oh you speak German? Weenershnitzel!”) But by choosing to situate the concept of wabi sabi within a Westernized word, he does invite the opportunity for misuse and confusion.

To get to the heart of wabi sabi, I consult Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.” Koren writes about 90 years after Okakura. In contrast to Okakura, an Easterner living on occasion in America, Koren was a Westerner living in Japan. As a designer, he took to the task of reinvigorating the understanding of Teaism in the West that had originated with Okakura. Koren embarks upon this not just through the written word but through the physical object of the book itself. He fills the pages with imagery, designs every element so that wabi sabi is not just described, but felt intuitively.

Part of Koren’s work is to tackle the word wabi sabi itself. In his “provisional definition,” he claims the English word “rustic” is the closest analogue (though he admittedly does this with plenty of skepticism). For me, this word instantly calls to mind Midwest prairie homes overrun with dust, walls covered in garish wallpaper, white paint peeling off in the sun, the tortured moan of a windmill turning with the heat rather than with the wind. Although there may perhaps be some genuine points of unity between this image and the tenants of wabi sabi, for me this calls nothing to mind of the cool respite of wabi sabi’s embrace of earth, tea, neutral color and unadorned surfaces.

As an interesting aside, the example presented above can also be seen as the justification for including language within the realms of wabi sabi philosophy. Language evolves and meanings slip to the side, and Koren’s “rustic” is, beautifully, not my “rustic.” The point where those two understandings meet can be called a part of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

But Koren only begins his “provisional definition” with an English analogue. It takes him two more pages of grappling with the words to, not necessarily reach a definition, but demonstrate just how difficult and even unnecessary it is to translate wabi sabi. Most interesting however are the neatly arranged columns describing the individual references of the words wabi and sabi, showing how their disparate meanings combine to create the loosely defined, yet unified concept of wabi-sabi.

So this is where my translator’s anxiety kicks in. Because the nature of both Koren and Okakura’s books allowed them to wax endlessly on the complexities of meaning and cultural conveyance within a word. But if I am tasked with translating a novel, short story, blurb, or anything of a more literary nature, I simply can’t spend time within the work explaining the nuances of why “this word is easily translated as that but within this culture the word implies all of this and is slightly different than the target language’s culture, etc. etc.”

Additionally, as a reader of translated literature, how can I know when these issues are occurring? I am blind, forced to place all of my trust in the hand of the translator, not knowing where one phrase in the original language might have contained breathtaking beauty, but after the violence of translation, ended up only pleasantly readable. Translators are humans, with agendas, and while most pursue the noble cause of intercultural communication, some, like the translators of Wang Wei mentioned above, are more apt to ensure, whether consciously or not, that an audience understands a text their way, rather than doing everything they can to let the original author shine through. In my despair I’ve even found myself contemplating avoiding translated literature, an overreaction that would of course only spell disaster for the study of intercultural communication.

I have a 500-page book filled with essays by authors far smarter and more accomplished than I dealing with this issue, so I hardly expect to have an answer right now.

The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is to simply dedicate myself to learning language, for the sheer sake of having the tools to appreciate beauty on the originating culture’s terms, to know that there is at least no middle-man between the meanings save the inherent fluidity of language and context.

But then, one can’t expect every person to take on the weighty task of becoming fluent in another language. So in this way, the translator’s duty is simply to do their job to the absolute best of their knowledge. Be both a mimic and artist, able to infuse their translated text with a like beauty and tone. I am horrified by my helplessness. But, perhaps here is where the study of Book of Tea as an untranslated document, as a philosophical and even religious text to which I am immensely drawn, can provide some answers.

Wabi sabi, Teaism, is an aesthetic philosophy that sees the beauty in the imperfect. Symmetry, perfection, sterility, all work against what wabi sabi holds in highest regard. It is a “tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” (Okakura) As a translator struggling with the futility of translation, such a phrase provides a patient exhale, permission to continue forward.


References and Further Reading:

Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of TeaDuffield & Company, 1906. (Available on Project Gutenberg)

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Imperfect Publishing, 2008.

Weinberger, Elliot and Octavio Paz. 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated. Moyer Bell Limited, 1987.


Music mentions/listening to:

Jill Tracy  – Diabolical Streak

Gamelan Degung –  Sabi Lulungang



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