Do I Need to Translate to Read Japanese Novels?

If you are learning Japanese, you may wonder what it takes to be able to read a book in Japanese. Since you’re reading this, you already know how to read English. It may seem like the quickest path to Japanese reading fluency would be to find the English equivalent for each word and expression, then let your brain process the English. Very straightforward.

I have seen a couple examples of this approach for learning a second language. When I was a college student, I had the opportunity to be a home tutor for a Japanese high school student, helping him with his English homework. I was surprised to see that one of his objectives was to precisely and rigorously translate English sentences into Japanese. The resulting Japanese was not natural, but he was being taught to use those sentences as an intermediary when trying to understand English. Although challenging, it didn’t seem to me like he would get very far if his objective was to truly understand English. Even if he could understand written English using this method, he would be left behind, brain filled with Japanese, in any kind of English conversation.

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Unofficial Translation of a Story From “Honey Bees and Distant Thunder” by Onda Riku

I posted a bilingual review of Honey Bees and Distant Thunder by Onda Riku here. To follow up, I’m posting a translation of a short story that is embedded into the novel as part of the description of one of the songs that a character performs in a piano contest. This short story is one of the many creative ways Onda Riku expresses music through words.

I decided to translate this because it was challenging for me to catch the details the first time I read through it. I realised that it was because I had trouble determining the subjects of some of the sentences and who some of the pronouns were referring to.

In my attempt at a translation into English I tried to clarify many of the subjects. English writing tends to use sentences with explicit subjects more frequently, while in Japanese, the subjects are often inferred from contextual clues.

I won’t give away who performs the song or what song this story is describing in case you plan on reading the book yourself.

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Ten Japanese Four-Character Idioms in Context from “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl”

Four-character idioms are an interesting feature of the Japanese language. From here on I will call them yojijukugo, which is the romaniztion of 四字熟語. One example that a beginner may be familiar with is, “一生懸命いっしょうけんめい (is shou ken mei)”, which basically means to try hard. It’s often quite relevant for someone trying to learn Japanese.

I have been interested in yojijukugo since soon after I started learning Japanese. I bought a pocket size dictionary of yojijukugo, and I would highlight any as I came across them in real life. I mostly discover them in reading, but then I sometimes notice them in a podcast after I know what to listen for. I would be very unlikely to pick them up from context by listening, so I get a sense that reading is paying of for improving listening comprehension through re-discovering yojijukugo I have learned in podcasts, and that is very rewarding.

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl by Morimi Tomihiko (夜は短し歩けよ乙女 by 森見登美彦) is filled with interesting yojijukugo. As with any vocabulary, yojijukugo are hard to learn in isolation, so this novel provides a great opportunity to see many instances used in context by an expert. I will pull out my ten favorite and include the sentence they came from as well as the context.

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Translation of a scene from Morimi Tomihiko’s “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl”

夜は短し歩けよ乙女 by 森見登美彦 has been popular for a long time, and has recently gained in popularity as I watch it’s rankings in bookemeter.com. I think this is because an animated movie based on the book came out in theaters this month in Japan.

I have read a couple of novels from Morimi Tomihiko, and his writing style is my favorite I’ve encountered so far. The extensive and out of the ordinary vocabulary he uses, and his roundabout ways of expressing things makes his writing very interesting to read. His books are also a treasure trove of new (to me) and interesting, but not necessarily common, vocabulary to learn.

I haven’t been too drawn to the plots and settings of the Morimi books I have read so far. It’s not that they’re bad, but they’re just not quite my taste. I find that the writing style is so interesting, that I’m not too worried if the plot and setting are not my favorite and look forward to reading more of his books.

I will translate a strange scene from the middle of this novel. I’m not able to do the writing style justice in translation, but I try to get the meaning across. The section I translated was not actually too dense with challenging vocabulary.

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Translation of the Prologue of “The Wind Across Qinghai Lake?”

I’m still reading through Mori Hiroshi’s (森博嗣)W-series, and this is the third book, “風は青海を渡るのか? The Wind Across Qinghai Lake?”. This one is a bit more philosophical than the the previous book, but there is a bit of action as well. The main theme is the exploration of the difference between humans and a robots, and whether we will we get to a point where humans and robots are the same.

As someone that looks to the Bible as the foundation of truth, I believe that God made us as more than our physical bodies, so the non-physical part is something that humans would never be able to create.

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Don’t Be Tricked by Katakana Words

Japanese borrows a lot of words from English. I have heard some Japanese learners lamenting the fact that new katakana versions of English words are replacing perfectly good pre-existing Japanese words.

The influx of too many new foreign words in Japanese makes the language more difficult to understand, less precise, and it may take away some of the charm of Japanese. This problem is acknowledged by the MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology). They have a document on their website talking about the state of the Japanese language with respect to international society.

Here is my translation of a small portion of the document.

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Unofficial Translation of the First Few Pages of Hakugin Jack (白銀ジャック) by Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾)

The suspense novel, Hakugin Jack (白銀ジャック) by Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾), is set in a popular ski resort. The plot centers around how the employees, managers, and executives handle a threat to the safety of their guests.

Instead of writing a review, I’m going to translate the first few pages into English. If you are thinking about picking up this book in Japanese, then maybe it will give you an idea whether it seems like something you would like to keep reading.

My other reason for trying a translation instead of a review is that, since this blog is written in English, I would like to do something that is more valuable to the reader than writing reviews for books in a different language. If it goes well, I may seek out other things to translate.

I’m going to keep reading and writing about Japanese books, so if you have an idea for how I could approach this that would be most helpful to you, then feel free to send me a comment.

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