How can I maintain and improve my Japanese translation skills?
September 15, 2011 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I am a professional translator, Japanese to English. I work almost entirely in comics and novels, at home, alone. My Japanese language skills are atrophying, and I don't know what to do about it.

(Posting anonymously because I don't need my professional peers and editors seeing me admit that I'm not as good at my job as I'd like to be.)

Having achieved my lifelong goal of becoming a translator (I know, god, what was I thinking) I now find that my language skills have at best plateaued, and may in fact be slowly degenerating.

I'm good at my job, but I could be better. I lack the kind of intuitive miasmic cultural gestalt knowledge that the best translators have, and it slows me down. I'll spend hours puzzling through a strange colloquial construction because I haven't chopped the verb apart right. I'm unfamiliar with a strange loanword that's not in any of my dictionaries. Etc. It's hard to explain my problem to a non-specialist, but the problem does exist.

I am heavily reliant on dictionaries to do my work. My vocabulary is pretty bad, essentially middle school level, so I'm constantly looking up words.

I want to find a way to reverse this trend that's compatible with my fundamental laziness. I am a terrible autodidact. Realistically, there is no way I'm going to drill kanji or vocabulary solely for my own edification.

This doesn't even touch upon my listening/speaking skills, which... forget about it. I used to be great at speaking, but am a shadow of my former self. I no longer live in Japan, I live in Brooklyn. I have no Japanese friends. I've been to a couple of conversation groups, but they're filled with 22-year-old anime fans taking Japanese 102, and are consequently useless to me.

Engaging with Japanese material is work; it is literally my job. I like my job well enough, but I need to find a way to improve my skills that doesn't feel like work.

TL;DR version—How can I improve my Japanese vocabulary and cultural literacy? What should I be reading that I'm not reading?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The Dutch mother of a friend of mine, who has lived in French-speaking Quebec for over 40 years, swears by daily crossword puzzles as what keeps her sharp in her native tongue, and also on top of new coinages and even pop culture. I don't know if there's a Japanese equivalent to something as awesome as the NYT Crossword, but if there is, it might be worth investigating.
posted by Shepherd at 1:19 PM on September 15, 2011

I have no Japanese friends. I've been to a couple of conversation groups, but they're filled with 22-year-old anime fans taking Japanese 102, and are consequently useless to me.

I'm not in NYC but there has to be better options for this. My first thought would be to call the UN and find out if there are any native speaker groups / activities / etc.
posted by 3FLryan at 1:29 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not in NYC but there has to be better options for this. My first thought would be to call the UN and find out if there are any native speaker groups / activities / etc.

Seconding this. New York is crawling with Japanese expats -- try heading to Stuyvesant Street, that weird diagonal street that runs between 2nd and 3rd Avenue around 9th Street; that street is sometimes called "Little Tokyo." There's a Japanese food market there, as well as a bar called "Angel's Share" -- try going and just striking up conversations with people. Or explain what you're trying to do, and they can point you to a group, perhaps.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:36 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, check In my area, there are a few groups for expats from other countries-and the people who love them/love the country.
posted by MexicanYenta at 1:40 PM on September 15, 2011

If you can possibly afford it, your most efficient solution would be to go live in Japan for a couple of months. Presumably you can do your work via email/internet, so you wouldn't have to take time off. Even a couple of weeks would help, but the longer you stay immersed, in my experience, the longer the improvement to your fluency lasts.
posted by lollusc at 1:40 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about hanging out at a place like Kenka? The bar at the Kitano Hotel? Are you a religious Christian (or perhaps even if not)? You could attend services at the Japanese American United Church.

More broadly, there's the Japanese American Association of New York, which has all kinds of programs.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:50 PM on September 15, 2011

Again, if your budget allows it, try calling large hotels in Japan (I wouldn't call smaller mom and pop businesses) and have a conversation about rooms and nearby attractions and restaurants, etc.
posted by spec80 at 1:52 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read voraciously and eclectically. Pick up what you can and don't worry about what you miss if no-one's paying you to get it right (but be aware of when you may have got the wrong end of the stick). Watch any old rubbish on the Internet and browse the sort of forums where the new coinages you need to know are produced or widely used.
posted by Abiezer at 3:13 PM on September 15, 2011

Once I found one or two, netflix instant watch has been offering me loads more movies in french than I had ever realized were on there. Even by going to the "foreign movies" sections and clicking through didn't seem to yield me as many results.

So, find a Japanese movie or two and then go from there. (for better or worse the movies always have English subtitles- haven't figured out a way to change it yet :( )
posted by raccoon409 at 3:30 PM on September 15, 2011

Anonymous, I'm in Brooklyn and I think my level's about the same as yours. Surely between you and me and ... Craigslist? we could scrape together enough people for an advanced conversation group or book club or movie club.

I don't know that there's an answer to "what should I be reading that I'm not reading" that isn't everything. That "intuitive miasmic cultural gestalt knowledge" is what comes from silly commercials and daytime TV and NHK news and daily conversation and pop music and novels. And in ridiculous quantities. If you don't live in Japan you can still commit to getting your news from, your TV from the shop in the East Village that rents J drama DVDs, your internet weirdness from 2chan. I do find that when I'm hearing Japanese TV, even an episode or two every few days, it keeps my listening circuits open, so to speak.
posted by Jeanne at 4:09 PM on September 15, 2011

Japanese to English translator here. Having lived in Japan 13 years, I think I can safely say that the only way to really get into (or back into) the Japanese language is to live here.

If that's not an option, I wouldn't bother with half-measures towards brushing up your Japanese. You need an informant; a Japanese person you can regularly ask about weird things that they will instinctively know but which are really hard to figure out.

Maybe find a Japanese person studying in NY who is up for language exchange: Meet weekly and work on his/her English for a while, followed by your questions about Japanese. You could look for such people in the real world, or on the Internet. Where I have really no idea. :)

Again, I think the whole "cultural gestalt" surrounding manga is so large and complex and changing that you can't really hope to grasp it from where you are. You need someone who already knows it intuitively to answer your questions. Maybe you can give them money to do so, and it may work out for both of you if it significantly increases the speed at which you translate.
posted by zachawry at 4:34 PM on September 15, 2011

It seems to me that since this is your work, a trip to Japan should fall under some kind of work-related professional development tax status. Ask your account. A few months abroad might be more affordable than you think.
posted by colin_l at 4:52 PM on September 15, 2011

sorry - *accountant*
posted by colin_l at 4:52 PM on September 15, 2011

I am with Abiezer and zachawry: best solution is to go to Japan and immerse yourself, but if that's out, you need to do the immersion from where you are and, if possible, hire someone to help you understand important-seeming things that you don't get.

Note that immersion doesn't mean drilling. I personally strongly recommend against plain old drilling. You just need to expose yourself to as much material as possible so that your brain can get better at understanding it. And since you know exactly what sort of material you need to get better at understanding, you can focus on that material alone. For example, it sounds like for you, it would be much more productive to get familiar with teenage slang than to learn a bunch of terms used in economics and political science.

Also, I think maybe you need to reexamine your issues. I'm not trying to put you down here (I love Japanese-English translators), but misunderstanding verb boundaries is not about "miasmic cultural gestalt knowledge" — it's something much more fundamental. I think you need to consciously think about the issue as not "how do I expand the set of things I know, so that I have more tabs to fit into the slots I encounter?" but more like "how do I keep restructuring my understanding so that more and more Japanese is intuitively within my grasp, and the amount of tab-in-slot-type understanding keeps getting smaller?"

The reason I say this is, every generation of Anglophone Japanese learners is getting better and better, as far as I can see. 10-15 years from now, a bunch of kids will be coming up hungry for the work you do, willing to accept lower paychecks and worse conditions, and quite possibly better at Japanese too. You have to keep pushing yourself to evolve the structure (not just the content) of your understanding, so that when they arrive with their Anki implants and love of Gundam Triple Z Sin 2π ~My Always Love~, you are no longer in direct competition with them because you are already at the next level — from which you will mentor them, of course...

Good luck! Feel free to contact me privately if you want to talk about Japanese literature (novels, manga, I dig it all).
posted by No-sword at 4:53 PM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Echoing No-sword, some advanced Japanese language extension classes at a local college might do a lot of good.
posted by zachawry at 4:58 PM on September 15, 2011

A series of language exchange partners (people about my own age with whom I go out for coffee/drinks/dinner occasionally and chat about life and weird language quirks with) have helped me to keep my Japanese after moving back to an English-speaking country. Even though I am quite lazy about it and speak a lot of English with language exchange partners, it can still be helpful: at the very least I get some listening in and pick up new vocabulary. You might want to focus more on speaking Japanese, or you might even just make pop culture and slang a key topic of discussion.

You can easily find language exchange partners on the internet. I'm not sure what the best local sites are in NYC.

And nthing that watching dramas, or o warai bangumi on Youtube, or Japanese news, etc, could be very helpful for you.
posted by equivocator at 5:38 PM on September 15, 2011

I'm a Japanese-English translator, too, and I thought I submitted this post in my sleep!

My situation is the exact opposite of yours, though. I'm Japanese and live in Japan, and although I'm probably as thoroughly bilingual as anyone could be, I sometimes feel like my English has plateaued and is degenerating, like you say about your Japanese. I feel like my peak was back when I lived in Canada 20 years ago (gah!), and that now I'm draining away what I saved up until then, so to speak. Like you, I don't have many English-speaking friends here that I see on a regular basis, and I can count the number of times I've had a conversation completely in English with someone these past 14 years or so (ever since I quit my outside job to focus on mom-stuff) on my fingers.

It's hard to keep up, isn't it? I know exactly how you feel about going out and trying to find conversation groups. For me this is impossible because my English is too good. And while I, too, like my job and still love reading and writing English, sometimes it feels like such a chore because at the bottom of my heart I've always felt that I'll probably never be as good as a true native speaker beyond a certain level no matter how I try. But you gotta do the best you can with what you have, I guess.

One of the biggest reasons why I keep coming back to MetaFilter is for the English "conversation," because this is the only place on the internet that I know where people who "speak" better English than I do gather to "talk" about various topics. In my dream world, MetaFilter would be a bar or something in downtown Tokyo that I could drop by a few times a week to join in the conversation, but then I guess there would be too many brawls out in the back (MetaTalk) for this to be even remotely realistic...

Sorry to ramble on like this without a concrete solution. Like No-sword says above, I wouldn't mind if you contacted me about cultural references and whatnot, either. J-E translators unite for better quality!
posted by misozaki at 6:42 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for Japanese conversation you might wish to considering taking up a traditionally Japanese martial art. In the SF Bay Area there are several Kendo dojos that speak Japanese almost exclusively; I would imagine there are similar places in NYC.

It would be a chance to meet and talk to Japanese ex-patriates in a casual setting, plus it would probably be good for you :-) .
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:25 PM on September 15, 2011

There's a Japanese food market there

Empress is wise as always - you can totally put up a "seeking japanese speakers!" flyer on one of their pinboards at Sunrise Mart.

Also I can give some colleagues over at Japan Society a call tomorrow and see if they have any ideas/recommendations/resources.
posted by elizardbits at 8:00 PM on September 15, 2011

I face the same sorts of problems with Mandarin. Here are some solutions I've found that haven't already been mentioned:
  • Doing interpreting. Nothing gets the brain processing language faster and exercises old structures harder than having to do it right there, on the spot. Around here, medical interpreting is the most called for, but legal and business purposes are big, too.
  • If you haven't yet, take a course in Literary. Knowing Classical Chinese has been a huge boost to my modern Mandarin. Japanese linguistics might be useful, too.
  • Check into government-sponsored language study trips. You might be able to go back to Japan for a few months to study.
  • Volunteer at one of the local Japanese culture groups. I'm doing some volunteer translating for a local Chinese culture group and it's been pretty good work.
  • Have you looked into teaching Japanese? Having to explain things in a clear way and be able to give good explanations for "Why can't you say XYZ?" can help your own understanding a lot, too.
  • If you do a language exchange, make sure that a) you're strict about which language you're speaking during which hour, or it gets to be a useless mish-mash, and b) make sure you switch off which language gets spoken first. If English is always second, you have a subconscious incentive to skip out early, for example.
Also, it seems useful to give the conversation groups a second try, or take up Jeanne's offer. Hard to imagine you're the only one in that boat!
posted by jiawen at 11:10 PM on September 15, 2011

Lots of great suggestions here. A simple way to get into spoken language: listen to the radio. In the seventies I picked up most of my English, listening to live baseball games on the American Forces Network (Vin Scully!) Night after night after night. Of course, my crappy Dutch-English dictionary didn't cover half of it, but somehow wanting to understand it, made me understand it.

From a month before we spend our holidays in France every year, I put the kitchen radio on a French current affairs station, to get into it. It really helps.
posted by ouke at 12:43 AM on September 16, 2011


Talk to people online?
posted by krilli at 2:26 AM on September 16, 2011

I recently moved back to the US for graduate school after a number of years doing professional and academic J->E translations in Japan, and found myself feeling many of the same things you mentioned in your post. This is anecdotal of course, but here is how I managed to keep my skills sharpened:

1) Spoke with native speakers as much as possible. (Most of my interaction was with friends in Japan over Skype, but I'm certain that in a place as crowded and diverse as New York you can find native speakers that are your age and have similar interests. Do you have a Mixi account? I would be very surprised if there wasn't a Mixi community for Japanese nationals living in NYC.)

2) Found work as a graduate TA teaching Japanese at my university. (Any chance you can teach or tutor in your spare time? Nothing reinforces grammar and kanji knowledge quite like teaching it to others.)

3) Listened to Japanese music as much as I could stand.

4) Added subtitles to a few of my favorite Japanese films to share them with my friends and family. (Excellent for listening practice and learning colloquialisms.)

5) Spent at least an hour every morning, without fail, studying vocabulary and kanji. ( has a great program for this, but it's a little pricey.)

6) Translated short stories and compared them to their professional English translations.

It took work, but I feel like I've lost very little of fluency I had when I actually lived there.

But enough about me. How permanent is your situation in NY? Have you considered relocating to Japan? I know it isn't a realistic option for many, but if you are concerned about your current ability level and future growth prospects, it may be a good career move. As many have already said, your other best option is to find some way into the local Japanese community. One friend is all it usually takes.

Also, you mentioned in your post that you sometimes struggle with uncommon loanwords and colloquialisms in your translations. Are you familiar with the ALC online dictionary ? It's my go-to source for natural word connotations and obscure colloquialisms when I don't have a native speaker around to ask.

Good luck, and shoot me a message if you'd like any specific reading, music or movie suggestions.
posted by Kevtaro at 2:34 AM on September 16, 2011

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
A lot of people are suggesting "Hey, you should go visit/live in Japan!" I have in fact lived in Japan, I lived there for two years, which is part of how I acquired what skills I do have. However, relocating there now is impossible for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is that a freelance pop culture translator simply doesn't make that kind of money. Shorter-term visits are out for similar reasons. I would love to go to Japan, but if people could limit their answers to things I can do outside that shining land, I would really appreciate it.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:11 AM on September 16, 2011

I am heavily reliant on dictionaries to do my work. My vocabulary is pretty bad, essentially middle school level, so I'm constantly looking up words.\

You've got to do the heavy lifting to get your vocab up to mastering the basic 1800+ Joyo kanji, because it will save you time and enrich everything.

You don't need to go to Japan to do that.

Also, watch Japanese movies and leave the Japanese subtitles on. Study at least an hour a day. Listen to streaming NHK radio. Create a Japanese-language blog.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:28 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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