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.
- I find that I know more than I gave myself credit for, which makes my study time feel more fruitful.
- I’m learning new things each time I read.
Let’s break down the approach.
My Translation Process
Here’s an overview of my translation process:
- 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.
- Create a vocabulary list template, with the following fields (see the screenshot at the end of this section): kanji (if applicable), kana (hiragana or katakana), and definition.
- Copy the material to a space where you can take notes on it. If you’re reading it on an electronic device, you can copy it to a Word document or to Google Drive, and then add the sentence translations and other notes as comments. For a paper version, you might want to make a copy of the original, or if you feel comfortable, you can mark up the original. If you don’t have an electronic copy or hard copy that you can mark up, you can just get some blank paper and write each sentence that you want to translate (good writing practice), or just reference which sentence or portion you’re working on.
- For each sentence, look up any unknown words and add them to your vocabulary list. A good online dictionary you can use is jisho.org.
- Start dissecting and translating the sentence, a piece at a time. If there are commas or other punctuated clauses, you can work on each clause one-by-one. Try to identify the important pieces of the sentence such as the subject and predicates. Also be on the lookout for modifying clauses that apply to nouns. Modifying clauses precede the nouns that they modify. You can learn more about modifying clauses at http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar/clause.
- (Optional) Edit the literal translation to more natural English (or other target language). In many cases, the literal Japanese translation might not sound as good or natural in your target language. Certain phrases, idioms, or grammatical structures might be common in Japanese, but not the best fit for the target language. Imagine that you’re translating for an audience; would the piece you’ve translated be easy for your readers to understand?
- (Optional) Get feedback: If you’ve gone through the trouble to do the translation, it might be helpful for you to get feedback and see how accurate you were. One option is to run the original Japanese text through Google Translator or some other online tool. It might not be perfectly accurate, but can usually provide a reasonable approximation of the meaning. If you have a language partner, teacher, or if you participate in an online language exchange community, you can post your translation and the original. Also, some pieces may already have an English translation that you can check. Keep in mind that it probably won’t be a literal translation, so if you see some differences in phrasing or don’t see all the words that were in the original Japanese text, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were wrong; it might be because the translator was editing for a more natural flow for readers.
- Study your vocabulary list in your program or approach of choice. I’ve started putting my lists in renshuu.org, but you can use whatever you’d like. The best part is that you’re likely to have a list of pretty common words that you’ll see again in other texts, so each new translation you do, hopefully you’ll find yourself adding fewer words to your new lists!
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:
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!
If you’re interested in trying this translation approach, here’s some resources that might help you.
- NHK News Web Easy ( https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/easy/): Daily news site that has shorter, less complex articles and sentences then regular news sites. Includes vocabulary tips. Each story also has audio, so you can practice your listening comprehension as well.
- Japanese Graded Readers (https://www.cheng-tsui.com/browse/japanese-graded-readers): These readers are physical books that also come with audio CDs for listening comprehension.
- FREE Websites for Japanese Reading Practice (At Every Level) (https://teamjapanese.com/free-websites-japanese-reading-practice-every-level/): A large compilation of online reading resources, from beginner to advanced levels.
- Maggie Sensei (http://maggiesensei.com/): Detailed, in-depth explanations of grammar points.
- Tae Kim’s Guide to Learning Japanese (http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/): A step-by-step guide to learning Japanese.
- 29 Genius Japanese Idioms That All Learners Should Know (https://www.fluentu.com/blog/japanese/japanese-idioms-2/): A list of some common Japanese idioms.
- Japanese Idioms (https://www.thelanguageisland.com/japanese-idioms/): A shorter, but still handy list of idioms.
- Jisho (https://jisho.org/): An online Japanese dictionary.
- Renshuu (https://www.renshuu.org/): A great site that includes games and exercises for learning kanji, vocabulary, grammar, and more.
- Tanoshii Japanese (https://www.tanoshiijapanese.com/home/): More games and interactive exercises to learn kanji and vocabulary.
- NHK Easy News Translation Subreddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/NHKEasyNews/): A forum for Japanese language learners to post their NHK News Web Easy translations and get feedback.