On the challenges of English go terminology

Published 19 May 2020 by antti (last edited 21 May 2020)
tags: tldr

When I first became insei in 2011, I found that there was a wealth of Japanese go terminology that I needed to learn to study the game. My teacher had set me up with an ideal study setting: once a week, I met with young Japanese professionals in a study meeting where I learned how to play the game and the professionals learned how to teach the game in English. Especially in the early days of this ‘go eikaiwa’, the focus was largely on the way that different Japanese go terms and phrases translated into English.

It should not come as a surprise that language facilitates learning; there were no nuclear physicists in the stone age. The more developed a language is, the more efficiently people can think and communicate subtler and more nuanced meanings. This is why learning an art is closely intertwined with learning the related technical language, and why proper terminology matters. Although historically Japan, China, and Korea have had a long head start in fostering strong go players, I suspect that part of the reason that we haven’t seen a western world champion in go is the handicap created by western languages.

If we take English as an example, how then, exactly, is English more inefficient than Japanese when it comes to discussing go?

First we of course notice that English go terminology has many terms that come from the Japanese language; for example atari, kō, jōseki, and tesuji. These terms are in fact so old that for example ‘jōseki’ has received the meaning of ‘established tactic’ in general Japanese, even outside of go. Still, these are just words; once a western beginner learns the necessary terms (or their translations, if they exist), should they not be at the same starting line as their Japanese counterparts?

The second minor handicap that English faces is that some translated go terms actually did not get translated very well. My favourite example is the ‘extension’, which can mean both a stone placed directly next to an allied stone (nobi in Japanese), or a stone placed some lines apart from an allied stone along the sides of the board (hiraki). On the other hand, ‘kikashi’ has for some reason remained in English go terminology, when it could be translated losslessly as ‘good exchange’. Only a scant few terms, such as ‘net’ or ‘ladder’, have made a safe and clean transition from Japanese to English.

Thirdly, the Japanese language simply creates a faster and more precise way to discuss different possibilities in go; partly because of its structure, and partly because English go language is based on a limited number of translations. On the one hand, Japanese for example has a passive form that is effortless to use in go language; you might say ‘hirakareru’, but its English counterpart ‘to get extended’ simply does not work. (The translation would become ‘let the opponent extend’.) On the other hand, in Japanese you can even denote complex move sequences quickly. For example, the opening moves in the taisha joseki could be listed: ‘mokuhazushi ni keima ni kakatte, taisha-gake, tsukete, warikonde, osaete, tsunaide, shita tsunaide, kitte, nobite, magatte, magatte’, or in English: ‘knight’s move approach to 5-3 stone, taisha press, attach on top, wedge, atari from the outside, connect, connect below, cut, extend, block in the corner, turn on the side’. Not only is the English version verbally longer, but I wager that Japanese go players will more quickly grasp the meaning of the Japanese sequence than western go players the English sequence. This is partly because the Japanese words have their well-defined place in go terminology, and partly because words such as ‘block’ and ‘turn’ are not quite so often used in English go discussions.

Fourthly and finally, Japanese go language has concepts and terms that have simply not been translated to English or covered in English go literature. One such term that I learned shortly after becoming insei was ‘karai’, which forms a set with ‘amai’. The latter of these is fairly easy to translate as ‘slack’, meaning a move that is not working hard enough – although the Japanese use the term mainly of a move that does not secure enough territory in a given context. ‘Karai’ is the opposite of this, meaning a move that works relentlessly at securing territory; this can be at the expense of overlooking other important matters on the board, so the term is not strictly a positive one. While ‘slack’ is sometimes heard in English go language, there simply does not seem to be a word for the meaning of ‘karai’ that is just as easy to use. (Fun side note: ‘amai’ and ‘karai’ also mean ‘sweet’ and ‘spicy’ respectively.)

It seems to me that Japanese go terms without (good) English counterparts seem like they would make for interesting and informative short articles, so I will aim to write more on them in the future. If you have a preference on which term you would like to read about first, you can vote by commenting on this post!

Comments (1)

yakago wrote 6 days, 15 hours ago:

"Although your last move was a bit sweet, this one was rather spicy!"

We need a recipe for a good game :-)