15 August 2011

The Problem With English Terminology

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In my previous post I pointed out some problems with the use of Korean by non-Korean speakers for Taekwon-Do terminology. Basically, foreign speakers of Korean generally mispronounce the Korean terminology terribly, resulting in miscommunication when people from different dojang train together. As I highlighted in the previous post, the reason for the mispronunciation is that there doesn't exist an official method for romanization. Instead there are many methods and none of them are fully intuitive to how an English speaker would pronounce the words. A further problem is that the ITF Encyclopaedia is also not consistent with how it romanizes the Korean terminology into English. My suggestion in the previous post was to learn hangeul (the Korean alphabet), for this will at least insure proper pronunciation. In this post I hope to emphasize the importance of using the Korean terminology. I hope to do this by illustrating the problem with using the English terminology.

When General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle founder of Taekwon-Do, wrote the first Taekwon-Do books, he did something quite remarkable. He broke away from the old tradition of giving techniques symbolic names like “weaving clouds”, “pulling the dragon's tale”, “crouching tiger”, and so on, or terms based on Chinese characters. Instead of using abstract descriptions relying on visual imagery or Chinese iconography, he replaced them with clear technical descriptions. Horse-riding stance became sitting stance. Tiger claw became open hand or open fist. While a handful of symbolic terms were still retained, for the most part the terms became obviously technical. It is important to remember that the context of Taekwon-Do's development was the military where there is little room for poetic descriptions. His emphasis on clear technical terminology was part of his agenda to make Taekwon-Do a martial art based on scientific principles, applicable for military combat use. The great thing about this is that it took away ambiguity. There is no uncertainty as to what is meant with a “front forefist punch”.

From an understanding of the original Korean terms, I have been able to get a very clear understanding of the technicality of a technique. Unfortunately the translation of these technical terms into English have been sadly unsatisfactory. Direct translations are not necessarily most appropriate in all cases. Sometimes, I think, alternative English substitutes could work better. A direct translation from Korean for one's “instep” is “back of the foot” [발등]. While we can figure out what “back of the foot” means, based on our understanding of “back of the hand,” the commonly accepted English word “instep” is most appropriate.

"Reverse Hooking Block"
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Although many techniques have been translated correctly, a bunch of techniques have not been translated with equal accuracy. Take for instance the “hooking block.” [걸초 막기] As I explained in the post devoted to this block, “hooking” is an unfortunate translation of the verb. A better translation would have been “covering block” or “wiping block”. The confusion is further compiled when you are confronted with two different kicks, both claiming to “hook.” Or consider, for example, the use of “reverse” in “reverse knife-hand block” [손칼등 막기] and “reverse turning kick” [반대 돌려 차기]. In neither case is “reverse” the best English translation for the respective Korean words. In the first case, the Korean word here is “back” or “backside” (i.e. backside of the knife-hand) and in the second it is “opposite” (i.e. inverted turning kick / a turning kick that moves in the opposite direction).

To really understand a technique, I am of the opinion that you have to learn the Korean term for it; not merely learning how to pronounce it in Korean, but actually understand its meaning. The English names are sometimes badly translated, so knowledge of the actual Korean term may often give you better or deeper understanding of the technique—take for instance my analysis of the side-piercing kick.

To research the meaning of a Korean word you obviously need to be able to use a Korean dictionary. One can, for instance, use online dictionaries like Naver's dictionary combined with Google Translate. Of course it is much easier to make use of a Korean-English dictionary if you know basic hangeul (it is easy to learn!). Korean friends with a good command of English can also help you to make sense of the meaning of Taekwon-Do terminology. An important thing is not to assume that the English terms are proper. Whenever a term is confusing (for instance, why is it called "reverse side-kick" rather than "spinning side-kick"?) or make use of visual imagery (for instance "axe kick" or "hammer fist strike"—it ought to be "downward kick" or "side-fist strike"), chances are the English translation is not optimal.

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