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INTERVIEW | 'Hagakure': The Colossal Task of Translating a Samurai Guide for Modern Minds

Editor Michael Maxwell explains the rigorous process of translating "Hagakure" to reach a wide audience while ensuring fidelity to the original text.



"Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai" a translation of Hagakure, a set of orations by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. (©Imperium Press)

Imperium Press, a distinguished publisher known for its dedication to preserving classical texts, unveiled a new translation of Hagakure in 2024. 

This seminal work is a practical and spiritual guide to the samurai way of life and the Bushido code of honor. Comprised of insightful commentaries by the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure delves into themes of loyalty, self-discipline, and the pursuit of a noble cause beyond personal ambition.

This latest translation assumes heightened significance in a cultural landscape that often espouses notions of extreme individualism and self-centeredness, particularly in Western societies. 

In the second part of this exclusive interview, Editor-in-Chief Michael Maxwell delves into the translation process undertaken to present this 17th-century Japanese Bushido classic to contemporary audiences. 

Excerpts follow.

Why the 'Hagakure?'

What inspired Imperium Press to undertake a new translation of Hagakure?

As a classics publisher, we have wanted to do something on Bushido for a long time. Our readership is very sympathetic to Japanese culture, especially pre-modern Japan, with its honor culture and feudal, martial, and aristocratic values. These values are akin to those in, say, Homer or Beowulf. So, I knew our audience would be receptive.

Looking at texts, Hagakure seemed like a natural fit for our library. The Book of Five Rings, while also excellent, already has many editions. We also considered Kojiki, which is attractive because there is a kindred spirit between Shinto and pre-Christian European religions, or "paganism." But Hagakure ultimately conveyed the right message. And it only had a few English translations, none of them satisfactory.

For one, the existing translations are quite awkward in their language. Even an attentive reader sometimes has to re-read passages multiple times to understand what's being said. These translations derive from "modern translations" of the 17th century Japanese into modern Japanese, so we decided to go back to the original text in Saga Prefecture's library and translate it into elegant verse. 


Hagakure was originally an oration, so our translator, Jake Ganor, always held in mind that our edition should be able to be performed. We also included much more of the later books in Hagakure, something most English translations neglect.

Tsunetomo Yamamoto (public domain by Wikimedia)

The Translation Process

Could you share any insights into the translation process and the decisions made regarding language, tone, and cultural nuances?

Mr Ganor's aim was to convey the spirit of the original and produce a picture of its poetry and forward momentum without transforming its essentially philosophical message.

Ezra Pound was a great inspiration to him, given Pound's skillful and subtle translations of difficult works into English. His translation of Noh plays, in particular, was extremely illustrative. Christopher Logue's War Music was also a tremendous inspiration. Like Hagakure, War Music deals with themes that are immortal, timeless, and visceral. Logue wrote with impact, and that influence comes through in Mr Ganor's translation.

In writing, three things became important. The first was to consciously avoid too-direct translation, word for word, which can seem mechanical and even end up more obscure than the original. The second was to provide context in the work itself rather than in footnotes that remove readers from the work and break its flow. The third was to pay attention to how it might be read aloud. That is why much of the work is consciously in a loose iambic pentameter, and techniques such as assonance and alliteration were intentionally used to improve its oratorical qualities. The final product is a joy to read for audiences.

Retaining the Text's Essence

How does this translation approach the complexities of Yamamoto Tsunetomo's orations?

Hagakure is, in some ways, a difficult text in the original. It was originally delivered as a set of exhortations to a younger samurai, and Yamamoto's last exhortation to his disciple was to burn the text to ash. This is symbolically significant — the text resists accessibility.

So Mr Ganor kept in mind that Hagakure is fundamentally oral in nature. Existing English translations tend to make the text plain and didactic and are often written in a weak, passive voice, which is unfair to the author — the effect is that of an overwrought self-help book. Mr Ganor takes a different approach, resulting in a fluid and lively text suitable for oral performance.

Moreover, our edition preserves the aesthetic character of the various orations. Some are maxims, some are poetry, some are dialogues. Others are brooding, exhortative, contemplative — and each demands a different approach. So Mr Ganor translated them into different verse forms that suit these different shades of meaning and tone. Prior English translations were often bizarrely inaccurate in their style and tone. Our edition brings the reader nearer to Yamamoto in form as well as in word.

Neglected Chapters

What inspired you to include lesser-known sections of Hagakure?

While some translations of Hagakure claim to be complete, this is not quite true. The Tuttle "complete" translation includes all of books 1–2, parts of book 3, and none of books 4–11. The real meat of Hagakure is in books 1–2, but these also include a great deal of domestic advice and repetition that is tedious to a modern Western audience. So we decided to include the bulk of books 1–2 but trim out those parts.

What sets our edition apart is the inclusion of selections from books 3–11. This part of Hagakure is usually neglected or omitted since it's a history of the samurai of Saga. But it includes real accounts of the rulers of Saga, accounts of local samurai, and stories of battle, and there are important insights to be gained from it, with some beautiful illustrative examples of the principles set forth in books 1–2.


Some of the most striking and memorable passages in our edition of Hagakure are to be found in these later chapters. For example, book 1 tells us something unexpected about the samurai ethos: that men who are not lusty and eager for wealth cannot be trusted, are worthless even (1.155). 

This is counter-intuitive, but book 8 has an anecdote that elaborates on this and clarifies why Yamamoto says this. According to one of the chief retainers to Nabeshima, "No one can truly be reliable unless they've once been a bit of a scoundrel." A comprehensive account of Hagakure must include at least some of the early and later books to give a complete picture of the theory and its practice.


Author: Daniel Manning