What’s a yaku?

Many of you know, I’m a professional translator/localizer. I’ve worked in the translation industry since I was 21. I like to do mahjong translation but it comes with peculiar problems that I thought I’d share with you.

Translation vs Localization

I love language and I love localizing. Please realize that this is slightly different from translating. My job as a localizer is not to train you in some curious custom from the source language–like retaining all the honorific ‘san’s and ‘chan’s in your manga translation–but to make it feel as if it was written in your language from the start, so instead of honorifics I find other linguistic or story tweaks to ensure you know when the hierarchy is important.

Localizing Mahjong

Mahjong has to be one of the most awkward things I’ve had to face. Not only is the set of terms inconsistent in Japanese (partly because they’re a mix of native Japanese, Chinese loan-words, English loan-words [dora comes from “dragon” if you didn’t know already]), but because of the specialist nature of some of it, some of these words may not be transparent to its native speakers even.

To muddy the waters further, many translators have already trodden the same path. These translators have taken good intentions and left behind a collection of ‘legacy’ terms which made sense at one point but now tend to be a ball and chain around our ankles. There are also a number of words that have been understandably borrowed from other games like MCR. But in co-opting them, the consistency and understanding they bestowed upon that ruleset is lost on riichi.

The untranslatable

And then there are the words that just seem to defy translation entirely. ‘Suji’ is a great example. It’s a word I can feel and know how it works but if you ask me to map it one-to-one into the English language. I got nothing for you.

Put 筋 (suji) in a dictionary and the first thing it’s probably going to give you is ‘muscle’. What the hell does that have to do with 1-4-7?!

Dig deeper into suji’s dictionary definitions and it doesn’t get any better…


Go to Osaka and the small roads connecting their big roads are also called…suji!

This is a flexible word and concept; great for Japanese, terrible for us translators. Suji doesn’t just apply to 1-4-7 etc. There are lots of different types of suji (you can check them on my own personal blog).

Everyone has come up with their own slightly clumsy version. I’ve heard octaves, piano keys, connectors, and many more. I’ve always personally gone with ‘suji string’ because I like the way it carries that sense of being able to great connections like they’re tired together with string. But maybe my imagination is over-stimulated from all this dictionary work.

The compromise?

At some point, I think we have to accept that some terms can’t easily be translated. When a player arrives at the level where they’re starting to consider suji, maybe it’s fair to also be able to expect them to learn a specialist new word. If you were learning an instrument, you wouldn’t be able to complain about all the Italian, after all.

But a good consistent translation of yaku (hah! another word I hate translating) is something we need to strive for if we’re to bring people into the game who have zero interest in Japan and will baulk at a long list of words they can’t even pronounce.

WRC rule update…

With the upcoming rule update, I saw a chance! I decided I wanted to be one of those good-intentioned translators I maligned above and try to bring some of the consistency in the Japanese term-set back into the English where it had been lost.

I applied the professional principles and skills I’ve learned, honed and used over 15 years. I showed the yaku terms with descriptions to localization colleagues who had little to no understanding of mahjong and without any knowledge of the English we currently use. I asked them how they would tackle this problem. It was a really eye-opening experience.

I then came up with various versions of rulesets and I took them out to beginners and had them use them to see if it helped or hindered. After narrowing my short list down to a main translation concept, I then went back to the community and argued it out with groups of people.

I now have something I’m personally very happy with.

Most of the English terms are the same, but some are slightly and importantly different. As experienced players already, you might not like the idea that I’m trying to change the words you’ve used happily for years. That is not my aim. My aim is for the ruleset to be more readily accessible to the uninitiated so they will be able to understand some of the relationships between the yaku.

Of course, I could just be making everything even worse than it was before… Only time will tell!

3 Responses

  1. Tinecro says:

    Translating the word “suji” is something that seems to me as stimulating as it is hard.
    As it gets further from “that defense trick” to a fundament of the mahjong combinatorics, involved in hand building and shapes, hence also in reading, finding a proper word to suggest the right image while being easy to use is far from a simple task.

    Talking about “yaku”, I want to share that cute pun that got published on mj watch yesterday: https://mj-news.net/manga-books/yuki_takahashi_four_frame_cartoon/20200114139836

  2. In Korean terms, suji is translated as 줄기패(julgi, lit. stem/stalk). Don’t know much how it does make a lot of sense, but it works. And I’ve thought of other terms like: ‘section’, ‘runner’, and ‘bracket’.

    But I haven’t got much ideas for ‘yaku’, other than ‘combination’ or ‘hand’.

  3. Zawa says:

    Yaku = combo.
    0 yaku = chombo.