Build Your Japanese Skills by Doing Translations

Kanji for Translate
Kanji for “Translate”

If you are looking to build your Japanese vocabulary, chances are you use an app like Memrise or Anki, or some other similar program or app. Perhaps you even go low-tech and create actual, physical flashcards (I still do!). I practice on Memrise every day (I currently have a daily streak of a little over three years).

I also spend plenty of time with my textbooks and Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) study materials to learn and practice my grammar and kanji skills as well, as I’m sure many of you do.

However, at some point, I would suggest that a great way to reinforce and build up your vocabulary, grammar, and kanji is to read native Japanese material. That suggestion might sound obvious, but a lot of learners spend most of their study time reading textbooks. The idea of stepping out into native material is often very intimidating to learners.

I invite you to take your reading one step further, and to take notes and do your own written translations. Here are some benefits I’ve found from this habit:

  • It allows me to feel more confident in my Japanese reading skills across several areas: kanji, vocabulary, grammar, and reading comprehension.

Let’s break down the approach.

My Translation Process

Here’s an overview of my translation process:

  1. Choose your reading material. I often choose newspaper articles or books (sometimes even children’s books, just to make sure I haven’t missed out on any more basic vocabulary or kanji). Check out the rest of the article for more suggestions and resources.
Sample vocabulary list
Sample vocabulary list

Choosing Reading Material

Usually, it’s helpful to try and choose reading material that matches up with whatever learning material you’ve used up to this point. For example, if you’ve been studying for the JLPT, there are graded readers that correspond to each level, such as these available from Cheng-Tsui: https://www.cheng-tsui.com/browse/japanese-graded-readers. That approach will help to make sure you have a good grasp on the grammar you’ll come across.

There are also some Japanese news sites that are aimed at beginner and intermediate readers, such as NHK News Web Easy, which you can find at https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/easy/.

You can also check your library or bookstores for Japanese children’s books. They are a great way to beef up your basic vocabulary and practice your translation skills.

I also have some links listed at the end of this article.

About Grammar and Idioms

Sometimes, you might run across a word that you think you don’t know, and you can’t find it in a dictionary. It might actually be a conjugated version of a word you do actually know, but you just haven’t learned that conjugation pattern yet. You might also encounter other unfamiliar grammatical patterns. That’s why I suggested graded readers or materials that line up with your current language level.

However, if you’re not able to strictly adhere to leveled materials (a lot of materials don’t have a corresponding level listed), or you want to stretch past your comfort zone, there are still ways to look up unfamiliar grammar. I have found a Google search is a great resource for looking up grammar. For example, I ran across this word in a newspaper article: 高め合う. I looked it up on jisho.org, and there was a definition for 高める, but not the whole word. I already could see that the first half of the word was the stem-form of 高める. So, I went to Google and searched for “japanese + stem form + 合う” (without the quotation marks). The first few results were about how to conjugate 合う, but I scrolled down and saw a page about verbs + 合う (you can see that page here: http://maggiesensei.com/2015/02/24/v%E5%90%88%E3%81%86-au/. This site is a pretty good grammar reference). Here is a screenshot of the results:

Google search results for a Japanese grammar point
Google search results for a Japanese grammar point

You might also run across idioms (non-literal phrases) that are common phrases in Japanese, but might not make literal sense of English. For example, in English, we might say that if you’re having trouble understanding something, you can’t “wrap your head around it.” A non-native English speaker might be very confused at that statement. Similarly, in Japanese, there are idioms such as “のどから手が出る”, which literally means “I get a hand from my throat.” However, in Japanese, it’s closer to “wanting something so much that you can taste it.”

These idioms might be a bit more difficult to recognize and find, but you can try Googling, and also have some books or sites handy that focus just on idioms, and you might find your answer. One good resource is https://www.thelanguageisland.com/japanese-idioms/, which is where I got the idiom example I used earlier.

However, even though you might run across grammar and phrases that are new to you, just keep studying your grammar lessons; chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you actually recognize!

More Resources

If you’re interested in trying this translation approach, here’s some resources that might help you.

Reading Materials

Grammar Resources

Japanese Idioms

Miscellaneous

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