“If translation is a form of betrayal, then the translator pays their debt by bringing fame to the ethnic culture…It is in translation’s faithless that [Sicily] survives and thrives. A faithlessness that gives the beloved life — is that not…faithfulness itself?”
Rey Chow, “Filmic Visuality and Transcultural Politics,” The Rey Chow Reader, edited by Paul Bowman (Columbia UP, 2010). p. 170
A Reluctant Tradition
Rey Chow always gives us so much to think about. Even more surprising are the variety of situations where she seems to have something to say. Upon first encountering the previous quote in Paul Bowman’s 2015 monograph, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (Rowman & Littlefield), I was so struck that I had to track down the original essay.
In that piece Chow is discussing certain issues in the cross-cultural translation of Chinese film. Given the importance of the kung fu genre in popularizing the Chinese martial arts in the West, this is exactly the sort of topic that often comes up in martial arts studies literature. Its not hard to understand that part of the field’s interest in her work.
What may be more surprising is that I recently found myself coming back to this particular quote as I reflected on a day of traditional Sicilian knife fighting. In some respects that is an art that seems to be about as far removed from the media soaked realms of kung fu film genre as one can get. It is not impossible to learn a bit about this art. Yet compared to so many of the arts of East or South East Asia, these small schools seem to have avoided the global lime light. While Sicilian gangsters have frequently appeared on the big screen, detailed representations of the region’s folk arts have never (to the best of my knowledge) been featured in a hit movie or English language TV series.
The media landscape is not totally barren. There are a few privately printed books and a handful of teachers operating outside of Italy. The art seems to have gained a bit of a following in Germany, which has an insatiable appetite for all sorts of fighting systems. But the global hype machine that follows so many fighting systems is notably absent in this case. One can locate a handful of facebook pages and youtube videos documenting the art. But the vast majority of these are in Italian and seem to have been produced for a local audience. Indeed, the caution with which many of these masters have approached the internationalization of their art seems to reflect the tightly held identities of the communities that created and supported these systems. These remain the sorts of folk practices that Thomas Green might characterize as “vernacular” martial arts. Some of these systems really do seem to be held within families, and traditions still vary from city to city.
I don’t say this in an attempt to create an overly romantic view of what can be a very serious practice. Nor should a seeming lack of interest in aggressively promoting these systems be mistaken for a “code of silence” or anything like that. There is some martial arts tourism that takes place in southern Italy and Sicily, and there are certain teachers who see a need to take steps to preserve their art. Still, this is one of the rare styles that one is more likely to first encounter in a seminar or training hall than on either the big or small screen. One is likely to experience and practice new techniques before you ever have an opportunity to translate anything about how they are supposed to make you feel. Because of that, encountering the Sicilian knife felt profound in a way that transcended the quality of the instruction or the seriousness of the material. I was able to approach this seminar with few preconceived notions of what I would be doing. Yet Rey Chow still has much to suggest about the way that these fighting systems are being performed and culturally translated in the current martial arts marketplace.
Before delving into a few of the paradoxes that emerged from this seminar, I would like to start with a quick overview of my notes. Of course I also owe a note of personal gratitude to Sifu John Crescione for teaching the workshop and inviting me to attend.
About a dozen students gathered at the Syracuse Martial Arts Academy at nine in the morning for our introduction to this rare art. The ethnographer in me noted that it was a comparatively male class compared to other events I have attended at this school (with only a single female student registered), but the student body was otherwise pretty diverse. Nor was I the only martial arts studies scholar in attendance. A fellow ethnographer with an interest in this specific practice was also enrolled. A plurality of the the students (who ranged in age from about 20 to their 40s) had a prior background with knife work coming out of the Filipino martial arts.
The seminar began with a lecture that situated what we were about to do geographically, historically and culturally. Students quickly learned that rather than seeing a single knife fighting system we would be treated to a discussion of techniques and training practices that emerged in a number of locations in Sicily. Sifu Crescione (who runs a Wing Chun school in the Willian Cheung lineage), explained that he first developed an interest in the art in 2010 and had studied with a number of teachers since that time. For him mastering this weapon was partially a fun intellectual exercise, and partially a means to reconnect with, and derive additional meaning from, his own Sicilian heritage.
In contrast, most of the students in the class seemed to be motivated by more practical and technical concerns. Of those present, only my fellow martial arts studies colleague had previously traveled to the region or developed any sort of personal investment in the art. Thus the seminar itself would best be understood as an attempt to translate Sicilian traditions in such a way that they could be put into contact with, and made legible to, students of other blade fighting arts. Certain elements of the religious and ethical world that these practices arose from were explained but they resisted any attempts to translate them into universal metaphors. This introductory lecture was absorbed by the students who sat casually on the ground and arranged themselves in a rough semi-circle.
The informality of the discursive aspect of the seminar contrasted with the energetic and (on some level) stressful nature of the material itself. At the end of the introductory lecture students were introduced to a few basic movements and given a simple thrust, parry, counter drill. This was designed to illustrate two things. First was the importance of speed (the system contains a series of short thrusts not unlike a Wing Chun chain punch) and second, the danger of mid-range fighting. Where as many South East Asian traditions prefer to bridge, hook and counter in this range, Sicilian knife fighters, inspired by local saber fencing traditions, tend to favor long distance fighting strategies. Of course nothing illustrates a conceptual point quite like a well designed drill. That seemed to have been the pedagogical themes of the day.
Following this object lesson, students were given a formal introduction to the basic cuts, sequences and steps of one school. Much of the rest of the morning was spent on the practical applications of these techniques. This also gave the students, working in pairs, a chance to become more comfortable with the longer range attacks and leaping defenses that characterize the Sicilian method.
These same subjects were taken up after lunch, and examined in greater detail. As in other fencing and weapon systems, evasive stepping and angled entry techniques were the key to locating openings without exposing oneself to counter-attacks. While the details of some of this footwork was different, on a conceptual level it wasn’t all dissimilar to ideas that I have explored in Wing Chun entry exercises.
At that point everyone donned protective goggles and white t-shirts and armed themselves with non-permanent markers, in preparation for the afternoon rounds of sparring. These exercises were carried out at three (color-coded) levels of intensity with different preselected sets of targets. At the end of every round people were encouraged to stop and examine themselves for ink patterns indicating what sorts of strikes had been the most effective, or what areas needed more work. After about half an hour of this the students looked like collateral damage from one of Jackson Pollock’s more creative sessions.
After a quick break we turned our attention back to a more technical discussion of cuts, parries and steps which students could practice on their own. This was accompanied by another short discussion of ethical dimensions in the system, and a bit about how it was being taught today. At just after 3 (a little over six hours after starting) we were dismissed. Pictures were taken and DVD’s of instructional material were purchased by those who were interested. Groups of two or three students at a time thanked Sifu Crescione and drifted out. Everyone seemed happy, exhausted and excessively colorful as they left the school.
The Translator as Traitor
By any objective measure the seminar was fantastic. Students who were curious about different types of knife fighting were exposed to something very different from the South East Asian styles which seemed to dominate the backgrounds of those in the room. Those with a more serious interest in the curriculum had received a nuanced overview of regional traditions, and enough in the way of a structured curriculum and solo and partner drills to keep them busy for many months. And my colleague and I found out all sorts of cultural and social information about the communities who practice this material, both in Italy and abroad. Nor are such discussions of still living Western folk combat traditions all that common in today’s martial arts marketplace. All in all, I would be hard pressed to think of a better way to spend a Saturday.
Best of all, this seminar was precisely the sort of cross-cultural encounter that raised all sorts of questions for students of martial arts studies. For one, I could look at some of these topics from outside the Chinese historical framework that typically shapes my writing. As always, such an encounter begins with an act of performance by one party, and a desire to interpret it by another.
This brings me back to the Rey Chow quote at the start of the essay. When thinking about our personal experience with the East Asian martial arts, those initial acts of performance and consumption have almost always been mediated though film or TV. Yet in this case the mediation occurred directly through body to body encounters. While some references to popular culture were possible when trying to explain aspects of Sicilian culture, only a few people in the room had any sort of mental image as to what the system was supposed to look like, or how any of these practices might map onto preexisting tactical or cultural concepts. All of that had to be physically enacted by the instructor and personally experienced by the student.
So have we in any way “purified” the transmission of a traditional art by minimizing students’ prior exposure to poplar images? Is our experience somehow more “authentic” because it began in the realm of “practice” rather than “entertainment”?
One suspects that the answer is probably no. Even the physical performance of an art in this type of setting is an act of cross-cultural translation. As such it is open to the previously implied criticism that it may be “culturally faithless”. However, as Chow noted, it is precisely the ability of a representation to be stripped of one cultural context and immersed in another which makes any sort of learning (not to mention genuine cross-cultural encounter) possible in the first place. An initial act of faithless representation may be necessary to connect with students and to create a sense of cross-cultural desire within them. Whether that role is filled by kung fu film director in Hong Kong or a Sicilian knife instructor in New York is besides the point.
On an empirical level, one of the most frequent refrains heard throughout this seminar was that some aspect of the knife fighting system mirrored either the tactics or basic concepts seen in Wing Chun. The instructor would jokingly suggest that either someone from Hong Kong had spent a lot of time in Southern Italy, or that 19th century Southern China had a Sicilian population that had previously escaped detection as the overlap was, at times, quite notable. No one actually hypothesized that there was any mutual contact between these systems (at least prior to the 1980s when Wing Chun was popularized throughout Europe). Still, at regular intervals throughout the class the instructor would make an exclamation about the obviousness of a parallel which functioned as a sort of semiotic marker for the students. It would refocus their attention on a specific concept or technique.
How similar are the two systems in objective terms? With only five hours of training in Sicilian knife fighting I would hesitate to offer anything like a decisive answer. Some things did indeed seem quite similar. The way that targets were treated, the importance of keeping one’s elbow down, fast repeated thrusts, aspects of entry and defensive stepping, all of this seemed intuitively familiar.
On the other hand there were also notable differences. A foot long stiletto is a fearsome weapon. Yet it is also a different weapon from a hudiedao or a Chinese military dao. Of course some styles of Wing Chun sword work favors the thrust (just as the Sicilian knife does), but many others focus on slicing and chopping. Indeed, the huge variety of blade forms that are seen in antique hudiedao suggest that we should always be cautious when making broad generalizations about what a style “does” or “does not” do.
Wing Chun swords are almost always used as double weapons. While at least one school in Sicily teaches double knives, this is much rarer. Two blades give one an ability to bridge and encumber that tends to favor the midrange. In contrast, the footwork and basic concepts of the Sicilian stiletto seem to favor a long range approach to fighting punctuated by sudden, highly athletic, lunges and quick retreats. We did see some knife “sensitivity drills,” but they were a training tool rather than strategic guidance.
In some ways (many of which have to do with basic body mechanics and geometry) the two systems do resemble each other. In others (the types of weapons, preferred fighting range, etc…) there were differences. Of course all of this brings up the question of recontextualization. On this particular Saturday the Sicilian knife was being taught on the grounds of a Wing Chun school, and many of the students (for whatever other differences they may have had) had a basic familiarity with Wing Chun. Thus it makes sense that the instructor would attempt to map the new system onto the conceptual vocabulary that his students already have. Teaching, after all, begins with a common language.
The problem with learning something really new and unique is that we are often missing core concepts necessary to make the material fully legible. As such new information is integrated with, and recontextualized around, those things that we already know. An interesting question thus emerges. To what degree do these parallels exist simply in the eye of the beholder? Are they objective facts, or epiphenomenal manifestations of the process of learning the system? If we were standing on a veranda in Sicily with a local instructor, would we see the same parallels? Or, in that environment, would he draw on a different cultural framework to aid the learning process?
That last point is key. One might suppose that we have been culturally unfaithful, that we have polluted some aspect of the Western art, by mapping it onto a previously understood Chinese system of hand combat. Yet direct, frictionless, mind to mind transmission of a fighting system just isn’t possible. In the absence of one system of metaphors, another would have to be created drawing on other cultural practices (perhaps dance, folklore or popular religion). Indeed, one suspects that we saw hints of these earlier layers of instructional metaphors during the “historical lecture” that accompanied the seminar. Yet if you are not coming out of an early 20th century Sicilian background, they are now no more accessible to a modern American student than the knife fighting techniques that they sought to contextualize.
Cross cultural encounters, whether originating from the East or West, begin with an attempt to establish the desire for communication. On a technical level, learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a process of continually recontextualizing old and new skill sets. Depending on their prior backgrounds, two students in the same seminar may have had very different experiences as they encountered the Sicilian knife. Each of these moves, because it involves the abandonment of old symbols for new ones, is an example of Chow’s faithless translation. Rather than perfectly conveying the life experience of the old master on his veranda in Sicily (something that we don’t have personal access to) we have transposed his understanding into radically different geographic, social and tactical languages. In a sense we have constructed a system that he might not recognize, at least not at first.
On some level everyone understands that this is going on. Simply consider the number of groups that are involved in this complex encounter. On the one hand there are aging Italian masters, many of whom grew up in environments very different from anything that exists in North America today. On the other you have a multi-racial group of American martial artists united only by their love of black t-shirts and a curiosity about knife fighting (usually as it relates to South East Asia). Mediating between them is a third (much smaller) group of Italian American instructors who have their own goals and life experiences that they bring to the table.
If there is one thing that I have learned from studying the Chinese martial arts it is that people are inevitably changed by the creation of new communities. When looking at the complexity of this situation I can honestly understand why attempts to promote the Sicilian knife or stick fighting methods have been slow and cautious. On a technical level the material can certainly be transmitted to a new generation of students. But it will also be socially transformed by any sort of generational or geographic move. This is a delicate point when a fighting system has come to be understood as a representation of a regional identity or set of values.
Would the global transmission of Sicilian knife culture be a good thing? Ultimately one suspects that there will be a process of negotiation between masters who wish to preserve their knowledge and values, and “outside” students who, for whatever reason, have come to desire and respect those things. I think that Rey Chow would suggest that this is a hopeful scenario. The faithless translator is still motivated by a love of his subject. As we have seen in many other areas, the success of a martial art can generate a great deal of respect for the culture, language and traditions that gave rise to it. That sort of respect is universally desired, and is a positive thing in the current global environment. Yes, everything is transformed by translation. Everything changes. It is a willingness to embrace some change for the sake of communication that may yet make the Sicilian knife immortal.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Butterfly Swords and Long Poles: A Glimpse into Singapore’s 19th Century Martial Landscape