How to Understand Japanese without Translating it
I set a high bar here when you learn Japanese through the Jalup decks. I don’t give you the full meaning of sentences like every other Japanese learning resource does. I tell you to understand, not to translate. Well what does that mean? Aren’t they the same thing? How can you understand it without translating it first?
The word “understand” is normally straightforward in most of your life. You see, hear, learn, experience something and you know whether you understand it. When it comes to Japanese, you are expecting that same “understand.” However, because every other thing you’ve learned in life has been in English, understanding in Japanese is going to be foreign. This brings you to an unfortunate conclusion:
Being able to translate the sentence (“understand what it means in English”), is how you understand Japanese.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Translating a sentence is not the same as understanding it. Translating is conversion. Within your native language, there is no conversion. The goal is to achieve the same in Japanese.
People get confused, because while beginners absolutely need English to start studying Japanese, that English is there for a specific reason. English creates your foundation for understanding Japanese. It’s not there to teach you to turn Japanese into English.
Every Japanese learner’s goal, and what every fluent speaker has, is the ability to listen to/read Japanese and understand it, without English ever playing a role. This is how the bilingual brain works. Languages are separate. This is why a bilingual is not a natural translator/interpreter. My aim on Jalup is to recreate this distinction and remove the translation step right from the beginning. You don’t need it, and you’ll learn Japanese faster without it.
How do you just understand?
Besides avoiding translated sentences, how do you sit there and review a Japanese sentence and just understand it, and know that you understand it. It’s actually a simpler process than you think, but everyone second guesses it and wonders if they are doing it right.
First, when you learn simpler words and sentences, there is an automatic translation process in your head. This is how your English brain works in the beginning and it’s impossible to avoid. Don’t fight it.
A ねこ (neko) is a cat. When you hear ねこ, for many months to come, the English word cat may pop into your head. Until eventually it doesn’t. Once you are in a fully immersed Japanese situation (ex. a fast paced conversation, or watching a tv show), your brain will not give you the time to translate ねこ to the English word cat. It’s not efficient and your brain hates the inefficient.
The real challenge is when you are putting together sentences.
Sentences in Japanese range anywhere from slightly to extremely different than their English counterparts. Verbs, particles, conjugations, and sentence order are often in a different world than English. This leads you to know the parts of the sentence but feel like you can’t understand the whole.
When I see a classic textbook exercise say the following:
“Translate this sentence into English.”
I can’t help but shout “WHY?!!!”
There is no need to do this. The English sentence structure will be nothing like the Japanese. Why are you gonna sit there and spend the time rearranging the words, finding matches in English, and then compiling that into some sort of English Frankenstein?
What’s the alternative to translating a sentence?
Here’s a standard textbook sentence:
You have 6 parts here.
は: topic particle
の: of (possessive particle)
下(した) : below
です: polite sentence ending
Don’t figure out the perfect English sentence by rearranging it. Instead, ask yourself:
With these parts you’ve learned, and how they are ordered in Japanese, is the meaning transmitted to you. Do you get what is happening? If your friend said this to you, would you nod your head sarcastically and think, “yeah thanks…”
If this happened, you understand it. That’s it. Move on. Nothing else.
Of course this is a simple example. What happens when there are more moving parts? If you had spent the time on the above sentence, you probably could’ve easily translated it to English if you wanted. But there will be many sentences you would struggle with. Good. Because you aren’t translating, so it’s irrelevant if you could create an English sentence or not. What matters is whether you have the parts, see the structure, and know what it means.
You won’t necessarily have a clear image of what it is in English. You may not be able to explain what it means in English. Lucky you, you don’t have to explain what it means. Understanding is an internal process, with no explanation required. Only you can know whether you get it or not.
What happens when you don’t know whether you understand?
The more complicated a sentence becomes, the sharper the decline of your confidence in whether you understood it. You can’t be sure if you understand because without a translation, the answer isn’t there.
To understand Japanese you need to learn how understanding Japanese feels. It’s a hazy feeling for beginners. You’ve never understood Japanese before, so how do you know what it means to understand it now? Without a translation, there is nothing to compare it against. Remember first: translation is not a check on your understanding. It is a check on your ability to translate.
That hazy feeling is natural. You are reteaching your brain what it means to understand. This takes time. It will result in plenty of:
- You think you understand it, but don’t.
- You think you don’t understand it, but do.
- You think you understand a lot, but only understand a little.
- You think you understand a little, but actually understand a lot.
This is the process. This is how you learn how to understand Japanese. This is how you become fluent in Japanese.
The understand vs translate struggle
How did you deal with the difference between understanding and translating? What impact did focusing on understanding and removing translating do for your Japanese ability over time?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I would even go so far as to say that unless you understand it without translating, then you don’t understand it. IF you have to plug it into an algorithm first, you’re understanding the output of the algorithm, not the Japanese.
Interesting viewpoint. We all need to avoid the algorithm.
Reminds me of a reading cycle I joined on discord some time ago. We read through a few NHK Easy articles together and then usually would also translate them sentence by sentence. And… I just felt a bit lost, because it felt soooo wrong to do this. I mean I could’ve just presented the polished up English sentence that roughly transmits the same meaning but especially when there were a lot of noun clauses (or whatever they are called) and stuff, that felt way too removed from how I actually parse and get it myself. But translating it on a word by word or pattern by pattern basis took much much longer and would render absolutely unintelligible English as well. And either method felt really forced somehow.
I mean I always thought that the goal was not to translate in the end. But at that moment the difference between “translating” and “understanding” just really struck me pretty hard. And that was already with fairly simple Japanese overall.
I think especially for new vocabulary I still sometimes find myself looking for the English equivalent if there is any. But I seem to get better at phasing that out. In general if I read or listen I rarely find myself translating and if I do it’s usually single words as well. But the more I immerse the less I catch myself doing that (probably because my brain is just as lazy as the rest of me), which is a great feeling in itself :)
If someone doubts that immersion has any effect at all I usually argue that it isn’t that much about learning new words but “getting used” to the ones you already should know. And if I think about it now this “getting used to” is probably mostly referring to “not translating” but instead “understanding” them :) So teaching your brain the shortcuts it needs to keep up at all.
Yes. That’s the main misconception about immersion. Just because you’ve learned something doesn’t mean you are used to it. Being used to it is so important, and immersion works perfectly to get you there.
I still battle the understanding vs translating thing. Things that have helped me in this battle are:
Forget how fast I’m going in anki/next. Since I don’t have a set number of cards I have to finish, it lets me focus more on the card in front of me.
Read the card out loud or in my mind. By reading it out loud or in my mind, I’m making it harder for English words to pop into my head. Either I understand the sentence as it is, or I don’t. I try not to let English get into the equation at all.
Watch tv shows that I find extremely interesting and that have never been subtitled (or watch them before they are subtitled). I’ve found that when I get into a really interesting show, English just kind of falls away in my mind. I don’t always understand the details of what is going on, but I just let myself listen and I either get it or I don’t.
Reading out loud can actually make you understand it better just by hearing the words as you are saying them.
What I like to do is when I struggle with a sentence is slowly read the sentence, breaking it down into blocks separated by particles. Using the simple example from the article, I might go
ペンは・・・ テーブルの・・・ 下です。
And I give myself time to comprehend each part, and often, just doing that the pieces slowly fall into place without the need to translate at all. It also feels like a very natural thing to do, since Japanese is made out of all those little building blocks.
I like it. Sometimes spending a little extra time like this can allow you to connect all the pieces.
I am actually really terrible at doing translations, which makes it hard for me when I am asked to do interpreting or translating. I suddenly become terrible at both languages.. So while normally enjoying yourself in Japanese, you don’t need to think in English at all, if you can foresee yourself being in situations where you may need to translate/interpret (for work, maybe?), then I would recommend at least spending some time trying to familiarizing yourself with that skillset before it is demanded of you. If you don’t ever see this becoming an issue for you, then I agree that it is best to separate them as quickly as possible.
To be fair, the times I have been asked to use English since moving to Japan have been very few, I was quite put on the spot, and it was quite frustrating/embarrassing.
Yes, translation is a completely different skill (http://japaneselevelup.com/becoming-japanese-translator-specializing-new-skill/), that if you want to become a translator, you will have to develop. However, for someone learning Japanese, it is not something you should focus on. I say do it once you’ve already become fluent.
When I first began the Jalup Next beginner deck I felt very tense because I wasn’t sure I was understanding what I was reading. I kept clicking on the links hoping I could translate and then understand. But Adam advised me to relax, just go with it and keep adding cards, even if I thought I didn’t understand.
He was absolutely right. Whenever I felt lost and anxious I took a deep breath and then added more cards. Eventually, the previous cards began to make sense. Now I understand what I’m reading and see that translating into English is both difficult and unnecessary.
The less time spent on worrying about whether you understand, and the more time spent moving forward, the quicker you will actually understand.
Sounds very zen.
Wondering what you think about moving forward if you miss the reading (pronunciation) of a word in the sentence? I usually get the meaning before the pronunciation because I completed Kanji Kingdom. But I click wrong on the cards I miss the pronunciation and it makes the reviews pile up in anki. More reviews=less time for immersion. Would appreciate any suggestions.
This is a judgment call on a case by case basis.
Do you keep messing up the same pronunciation repeatedly? It might be good to push the card forward just to take a break from it.
Did you get the meaning and pronunciation perfectly except for one syllable, you might want to still push it forward.
Was the pronunciation a careless miss (you actually knew it, but due to trying to go fast, you made a mistake?) You might want to push it forward.
How strict you review can be a session by session basis.
I change my review pass/fail standard depending on how I’m feeling for that day. On the days when I know I can handle a heavy load, I grade myself strictly. On the days when I know I will have little time or energy, I don’t grade as strict. It seems to balance out pretty well, as long as I don’t have too many days in a row of strict or easy grading.
Thanks for yet another good post !!
What ‘understanding language’ actually means is something I’m interested about.
I’m going for the JLPTn1 on Sunday in Hamborg. Especially for listening exercise you have no chance at getting the grip of it, if you rely on inner translations. You have to understand instantly. This post reminded me of that. Good reminder, I will dig into the test with that mindset.
I’ve lived in Sweden and Germany, and when I was considering learning the local tongues, the introductory textbooks didn’t have a single bit of English in them. They were all Swedish/German from the beginning! They know that pushing out the English as early as possible (in this case, right at the beginning) is good in the long run. Of course, English is far more similar to German and Swedish than Japanese is, but people who take the same courses came from countries like Syria, Iraq and Iran, and would have the same hurdles as we do with Japanese. Though to be certain, if you are not going to a course, it would be extremely difficult to make such a leap, so having the 1000 card beginner deck with English translation is a good idea. Once you get there, just keep pushing forward in J-J, even if you are uncertain. I can see it working already, even though I only started a couple of weeks ago. The English is starting to fade from the mind whilst I review.
But… what if you *literally don’t know the words*.
I can’t understand that something is under the ‘table’ if I don’t know the word table.
When first learning a language, you’re introduced to images and their meaning, like in English preschool. This is what I do because you can’t judge a sentence based on the sentence alone, your brain needs an image of what you’re saying. The image doesn’t change regardless of language, the only thing that changes is its’ name. It sounds silly, but my advice would be to watch kid shows or simple introductions to words with images. It might seem like an insult to your knowledge, but everyone is considered at the beginner level of every subject that they’re first introduced to. This message might be 4 years late LOL, so you might’ve already caught on to this, but this also goes for anyone reading this page.
I say this, but I’m unaware of reliable resources. I’ve been learning hiragana and katakana for about a year (it’s easy to learn, it was just my lack of motivation) with Duolingo and other easy resources, but when it comes to expanding my understanding of new words and meanings, I have no clue where to look. It might just be my over suspicion, but I feel like popular resources such at LingQ or JapanesePod101, I get the paranoia that the information I’m given is incorrect. If anyone has a resource they used that is reliable, please let me know!
I often run into situation where I may understand the context in Japanese (even if I don’t know all the words) but find it difficult to actually translate it when asked too. I really like how you said “beginners absolutely need English to start studying Japanese, that English is there for a specific reason. English creates your foundation for understanding Japanese. It’s not there to teach you to turn Japanese into English”. I never thought of it in such a way but totally agree with it.
Let me get this right. It is OKAY to learn and translate all the words separately. Like when you’re learning the language for the first time. But what you don’t want to do is try to convert or force the Japanese sentences to be Grammatically correct English sentences. Am I right? Like the other day I translated Japanese words in a manga. I didn’t convert the words into an English sentence but rather got the generally feeling of what the words meant and moved on. By doing this I also learned new kanji.
That sounds about right.
The easiest way to think about it is that you use “definitions” of words, but not “translations” of sentences.
Great article. Translating for me, is one of the hardest things when learning Japanese. There are times when I’m reading in Japanese and I know what it means in Japanese but, my brain wants to translate to English.
I’m supposed to meet up with a Japanese guy who lives near me so, hopefully, I can talk to him (and listen) in Japanese that will help greatly.
So neko means cat and I understand that without thinking of translation but I’m confused as to how to find out neko means cat if I never knew it in the first place.
Japanese-English dictionaries at first, then japanese-japanese.
It’s fine to think of the english for atomic parts of a sentence from time to time, especially if the sentence is difficult to you, the point is to learn to “understand” the sentence rather than translate it into your native language. Think of english (or your native language, but I’ll assume english here for simplicity), what do you translate “cat” to? There’s no “brain language” where things are translated to, you just read something and understand it. The goal is to reach that point in your target language too
I get this article and I think this is better when learning japaneee to become fluent.
But for example, and this has been stuck on my mind, if i read the word おはようございます and know it says ohayogozaimasu, then what? I read the Japanese word and spelled it with English letters for English speakers to pronounce it, but how do I know what that means in English? Ohayogozaimasu, cool, it’s a a Japanese word I can read but how do I and others know that means ‘good morning’ in English? Does the ohayo equal good and gozaimasu equal morning?
Maybe it helps not thinking about it in terms of “Good morning” or おはようございます but more in terms of “Thing English/Japanese people say in the morning to greet each other”. There does not need to be an exact representation of each word to each other (and often, there isn’t anyways).
When you immerse you will eventually pick up these situations (people always saying this thing in the morning to greet each other).
Imagine – once upon a time someone told you repair is “fix, but you can only use it for machinces” a shop is “a place people go to buy things” and take is “pick up something and leave”. Take is when you pick up somthing and leave”
these definitions are the English
And maybe the first 5 times you hear these words – repair, shop and take you think of the definitions. but eventully you are not translating “I took my car to the repair shop” into “I picked up something and left my car to the fix machine place where people go to buy things”
うわ、マフラー素敵な！ is a complement. does 素敵 mean lovely? supurb? fabulous? doesn’t matter, just say ありがとう. お疲れ様です is a hello and good bye used by my coworkers and teamates. Is that the same sama as 姫様 (hime-sama)? doesn’t matter. Just bow and say “おつかれさまです”