The trouble with translations

I will be the first to admit that it's often a lot easier to refer to a technique or kata by it's corresponding number. "Number 3" is just easier and comfortable for an non-Japanese speaker to say than "Gyakugamae ate", and it's also a lot easier to remember.

But if you have fallen into that habit, I would urge you to take some time and learn the Japanese terminology. Not only that, but do a little research on it, because frankly, the translations we've heard throughout our training are not always all that accurate.

Take the judo throw seoi nage, for example. If you're like me, you've probably heard it translated as a "shoulder throw." But if you look it up, you'll find something a bit different. (FYI, the translation source I was most commonly is Denshi Jisho, supplemented by Google, Babylon and others like that.)


It actually means something more along the lines of "to carry on one's back". Now, does that matter all that much? For me, yes. Calling it a "shoulder throw," to me anyway, sounds like the primary focus or action is on someone's shoulder, mine or uke's.

But I think most people are thinking of ippon seoi nage, where it does look a bit like the shoulder is more important, but even there ippon means something like "one" or "single" as in a "one armed" throw. Not me, uke; I'm using both my arms, but I'm only using uke's one arm to get him on my back.

The regular seoi nage, however, doesn't involve using my shoulder. Which means that to throw him, rather than using my hip as a point of contact or rotation, I'm carrying the guy on my back like a sack of rice.

Looking at a lot of instructional videos on how to do seoi nage, it's evident that folks are then trying to throw uke over their head. Which is just fine and dandy—as long as they're built your same size and they're not resisting too much.

But let's face it, as a people, the Japanese are much more physically homogenous than western cultures. In my classes, you can have a small guy, a tall guy, a really heavy guy, a stocky guy, a muscly guy....

So how do you throw a big dude? The answer I most commonly hear is, "Oh, you don't throw big guys with this." Well sure, if you try and throw a big dude over your head, then yeah, forget that! Great way to get a hernia.

And a guy who's fighting it? Well, that's why most tournament versions require tori to do a complete roll to get the throw (see the photo above), or they resort to a form of seoi otoshi, the so-called "knee-drop seoi." Or a tall guy trying to throw a short guy? Not gonna happen.

Now, imagine actually carrying a very heavy sack of rice on your back. And you can carry some pretty heavy weight on your back (and farmers of old often did)! If you had to set it back down, would you try to sling it up over the top of your head? Probably not. You'd most likely let it slide off to the side.

With that in mind, I don't have much trouble at all dealing with bigger or shorter guys. Do I get a nice big, beautiful, text-book flippy fall out of him? Probably not. But I've never really been concerned about tournament judo or earning points. If the guy's on the ground, my job is done.


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