8 Japanese Translation Exercises to Advance Your Translating Skills
Translating may seem difficult.
But, like any task, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
In other words—practice makes perfect!
And I have just the thing to help you avoid getting stuck in a rut (or extract you from the pit if you’ve already fallen in): Translation exercises.
Read on for eight Japanese translation exercises to help take your skills to the next level, plus translation tips!
- 1. Warm-up Translation Exercises
- 2. News Translation Exercises
- 3. Poetry Translation Exercises
- 4. Diary Translation Exercises
- 5. Pet Talk Translation Exercises
- 6. Perspective Translation Exercises
- 7. Review Translation Exercises
- 8. Repeat Translation Exercises
- Tips for Japanese Translation Exercises
1. Warm-up Translation Exercises
Just like going to the gym, every good exercise session begins with a warm up.
To get you started, you can check out the ManyThings site for five simple translation exercises. Sentences, expressions, words and kanji sorted in different ways will get your mind muscles worked up before you continue onto other sections.
Another great warm-up is translating Japanese subtitles of a short TV clip or movie scene. Other than popular streaming services, some video language learning platforms also make use of dual-language subtitles, so you can easily check the English subtitles to see how you did.
On FluentU, for example, you can watch authentic Japanese videos—like movie clips, music videos and news segments—with subtitles in Japanese, furigana and English, all of which can be turned on with a click.
You can try watching a video on FluentU with only Japanese subtitles and translating as much as you can. Then, turn the English subtitles on and watch the video again. How does your translation compare?
With FluentU, you can also hone your language skills by saving words to flashcard decks directly from the subtitles and then studying via the quiz system, which adapts to your learning speed to provide you with personalized questions.
Doing any quick five- or 10-minute translation warm up will help get you ready to take on lengthier Japanese translation exercises.
So now that you have your blood pumping, it’s time to make your workout even more intense!
2. News Translation Exercises
Translating Japanese news comes with plenty of advantages and benefits:
- You’ll gain worldly knowledge about things like politics, the economy and other aspects of society.
- You’ll get more accustomed to strict formal language since most newspapers are written in that fashion.
- You’ll build your kanji knowledge and enhance your ability to comprehend complex sentence structures.
Additionally, you’ll gain plenty of specialized Japanese vocabulary.
Specialized vocabulary deals with specific aspects of the world, like politics, economics, business, medicine and so on. You can find pretty much any of those in news articles, depending on what you’re searching for.
This new vocabulary probably won’t be the same difficulty level as a textbook in that area would be, but it’ll be enough to get you started.
Of course, unless you actually live in Japan, your mailman isn’t likely to bring Japanese newspapers to your doorstep every morning for you to find translation practice articles in.
You can search for “online newspapers in Japanese” on Google and choose what you like the most. Here are some of my suggestions for Japanese news sources you can pull articles from:
- Yomiuri (online newspaper)
- Asahi (online newspaper)
- Mainichi (online newspaper)
- NHK Easy Japanese News Reader (Android app)
- Easy Japanese News (iOS app)
- The Asahi digital app (Android / iOS)
3. Poetry Translation Exercises
I love poems. They’re all about mundane things representing deep thoughts and nothing being what it seems to be at first glance.
Poetry is an emotional roller-coaster and a linguistic neck-breaker. Perfect combination for Japanese translation practice!
Poems are wonderfully memorable. In fact, you’re likely to remember the entire poem just from translating it.
This is a nice bonus, since not a lot of people know poems by heart these days, and being able to recite a poem from memory is often viewed as a mark of intelligence and wisdom.
This could also improve your flirting game, so watch out, ladies and gentlemen!
Another benefit of poetry translation is that it helps you make sense of vagueness.
The linguistic benefits of this exercise include the obvious vocabulary enrichment and greater kanji knowledge. But perhaps best of all is a better ability to comprehend hazy sentences.
Plenty of poems contain somewhat indeterminate sayings that are hard to understand at first. After getting accustomed to this peculiar style of expressing thoughts, however, you’ll find it much easier to comprehend the meaning of any slightly unclear sentence you come across.
A good tip for translating poetry is to focus on expressing the poem’s emotion and tone.
If the tone is heavy, use heavy words when translating. If it’s cheerful, choose cheerful words. Poetry is but an emotion in letters, and the key to a successful translation is capturing that emotion.
If you need some poems, here’s a collection of Japanese poetry on Nakahara that should be enough to keep you occupied for a few centuries or so.
4. Diary Translation Exercises
This translation exercise is by far the most interesting one on our list. Here, you’ll write out your diary in Japanese, translating your thoughts and feelings.
Diaries are great. They offer you a chance to release any and all of your pent-up emotions, stress or difficulties onto a piece of paper. It’s so much better for all that to be put on paper than to build up inside you.
Moreover, you’ll improve your ability to express your thoughts more precisely, without simplifying them. Your handwriting will also improve, as well as your kanji knowledge.
So go ahead and write out everything that’s on your mind. If it helps, you can start by constructing simple sentences, and then enriching them with adjectives and adverbs. Try to use as much kanji as you can to help cement them in your memory.
Don’t forget to personalize the practice! To make this translation exercise even more fun and less like work, try to add your own touch to it. For example, I like to start my entries in a subtle fashion: “Captain’s log, stardate 2833.”
5. Pet Talk Translation Exercises
If you have a dog, this exercise is perfect for you! But it’ll also work if you have any other kind of pet.
Simply talk to your pet a lot—in Japanese. That way, this scene could become a reality! (Well, hopefully not.)
Jokes aside, this exercise has plenty of benefits.
Speaking in Japanese will feel more natural to you. Your ability to translate simultaneously will also improve. Your pronunciation of Japanese words should also get better over time—just make sure you’re actively working on getting the sounds right.
But what if you don’t have a pet?
No worries. You’ll just have to wing it.
Talk to yourself. Or talk to your favorite object, your computer, your kitchen utensils or your art supplies. Just like a crazy person! A true bilingual crazy person! Sweet!
Here’s a valuable tip for this exercise: Fill in the silences. If you can’t remember a word or if you don’t exactly know what you want to say next, never keep quiet. In some languages, stuttering or mumbling is disliked. But Japanese has special words for such cases.
Instead of staying silent, use えっと or あの while thinking up your next word. Stretch them out until you come up with it. These are essentially like saying, “Well,” or “Err…” in English.
And don’t forget to write down and look up the words you couldn’t think of. You’ll end up with a nice list of vocabulary words that you know you actually use in conversation.
6. Perspective Translation Exercises
For this Japanese translation practice, you’ll want to pick a shorter text, or perhaps even a section of dialogue.
The goal here is to work on various ways of interpreting the words.
For instance, the first time you translate the text, write it in the first-person perspective. Then, go back and translate it again, this time in the third person. See how it differs, and which better captures the original meaning.
Another option would be to first translate the given text as concisely as possible. Be brief and to-the-point while making the intentions crystal clear. Then, see how descriptive you can make it! Use adjectives and complex sentence structures to make the translation flow.
You can also aim for different moods (joyful, thoughtful, suspicious, etc.) and different approaches (factual, emotional, unreliable narrator, etc.). If you chose a dialogue, try giving the characters different accents!
In each case, think of the word choices, sentence patterns and phrases that best accomplish your translation goal. In the long run, this helps you learn to translate an author’s actual meaning and intention as closely as possible.
7. Review Translation Exercises
Reading other peoples’ translations of the same content is also a great way to improve.
For example, you might try translating a page of a popular book and then checking it over with the officially published translation to see how yours compares.
This is useful at all levels. You can make note of where and how your translation differs and use that to get better.
You might get new ideas on how to word things more appropriately or how to better connect information together. But you might also find something you did that you think is preferable to the other version!
Of course, keep in mind that “official” translations are still (mostly) one person’s interpretation of the text. Translators often have very different ideas that can vastly alter the meaning—consider the big splash Emily Wilson’s “Odyssey” translation made.
A related exercise is to edit someone else’s translation. Note that this doesn’t mean simply changing it to your own preferred translation; rather, you want to improve the current version and make it more accurate and readable.
Both of these exercises give great insight into the translation process and could very well inspire your own approach. It’s extremely possible that you’ll walk away from this task with new inspiration for the craft!
8. Repeat Translation Exercises
Once you’ve accumulated some practice translations and given them some time to sit, you can give this exercise a try.
That’s right: It’s time to go over your old translations.
Find an old translation and look it over carefully. Note where you can do better. Think critically about your previous choices. It might make you cringe a bit, but it’s the best way to keep learning!
Once you’ve thoroughly reviewed your old version, use the source material to write a new translation, keeping your notes in mind as you do.
An alternative to this is to go straight to the source material and translate anew without looking over the old version first. Then, once you have the new translation, compare it with your old one. How are they different? Why?
These exercises help you see how your approach to translating changes over time. It also encourages you to learn from your mistakes and target specific areas where you can enhance your skills.
Tips for Japanese Translation Exercises
The idea of translating Japanese text can be daunting.
Have no fear! We have some hints and tips on how to translate without a hitch:
- Split it up. Divide whatever you’re translating into sections—paragraphs, sentences or even individual words if that’s what you need.
- Get your dictionary ready. You can use an online dictionary or a physical one, whichever you prefer.
- Start with the kanji. If the text you’re translating has no furigana, look up any unfamiliar kanji before you start.
- Grasp the main idea. Read each sentence for meaning and try to translate it into the shortest possible form first: subject, predicate and object.
- Add the details. Once you’ve isolated the sentence core, you’re left with nothing but adjectives and adverbs to translate.
- Put it all together! You have all of the sentence components, so now you just need to string them together!
With these tips, you should end up with a good working translation of your Japanese text.
You can’t expect to upgrade your skills without working on them. If you work hard and remain diligent, you’ll achieve great results.
I hope you’ll have fun while trying out these Japanese translation exercises. Even more importantly, I hope you expand your Japanese knowledge.
Now…it’s time to start flexing those brain muscles!