Daft Punk has some excellent life and language learning advice in their popular song:
“Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger.”
It’s a four-step process:
Step one: Work hard.
Step two: Get better.
Step three: Learn Faster.
Step four: Fluency (and profit)!
In other words, practice makes perfect!
Unfortunately, it’s pretty common study Japanese for years but still not be proficient at it.
Luckily, we have just the tool to help you avoid getting stuck in a rut, or extract you from the pit if you’ve already fallen into it: translation exercises!
So grab your electrolyte drinks and put on some sweatpants and a tank top because you’re about to do a serious brain workout, my friend.
It’s time to translate some Japanese!
A Few Japanese Translation Tips
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, even individual words if you need to.
- Get the 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: 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 should now have a good working translation of your Japanese text!
Now all you need is something to translate.
5 Japanese Translation Exercises to Push Your Skills Beyond Their Limit
1. The Warm Up: Online Exercise
Before we hit it off with the meat of the post, we’ll be going for a warm up first.
The ManyThings site offers five simple translation exercises to get you started. Sentences, expressions, words and kanji sorted in different ways will get your mind muscles worked up before you continue onto other sections on our list and blast them away!
Another resource you can use for translation practice is FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world Japanese videos—like music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
It naturally and gradually eases you into learning Japanese language and culture. You’ll learn real Japanese as it’s spoken in real life.
Just take a look at the wide variety of authentic video content available in the program. Here’s a small sample:
You’ll discover tons of new Japanese vocabulary through these great clips.
Don’t worry about your skill level being an issue when it comes to understanding the language. FluentU makes native Japanese videos approachable through interactive transcripts.
Tap on any word to look it up instantly.
You’ll see definitions, in-context usage examples and helpful illustrations. Simply tap “add” to send interesting vocabulary words to your personal vocab list for later review.
FluentU even uses a learning program which adapts to your specific needs, to turn every video into a language learning lesson and get you to actively practice your newly-learned language.
Once you’ve found the perfect video for your skill level, do your best to translate the transcript, then check your answers by hovering over specific words in the subtitles as the video plays.
This is a great way to hone in on words you don’t know and to get a sense of your skill level.
Now that you have your blood pumping, it’s time for the real workout.
2. The Journalist: News Translation
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 a strict formal language since most newspapers are written in that fashion.
News translation exercises can also help you build your kanji knowledge and enhance your ability to comprehend complex sentence structures.
Plenty of specialized vocabulary
You’ll also be adding lots of new specialized vocabulary to your arsenal.
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.
Of course, it won’t be on the same difficulty level as a textbook in that area would be, but it’ll be enough to get you started.
Japanese news sources
Unless you actually live in Japan, your mailman isn’t likely to bring Japanese newspapers to your doorstep every morning.
If none of those hit the mark, you can just type in “online newspapers in Japanese” on Google and choose what you like the most.
You might also want to check out this NHK Easy Japanese news app (also available for iOS). I also like this Asahi digital app so make sure to check that out as well because it may help you with this exercise.
3. The Poet: Poem Translation
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!
You’re very likely to remember the entire poem while translating.
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 a mark of intelligence and wisdom.
This should also improve your flirting game by thousand points so watch out, ladies and gentlemen!
Making sense of the vague
The linguistic benefits of this translation exercise include vocabulary enrichment, kanji knowledge and, most of all, vague sentences comprehension.
Plenty of poems contain somewhat vague sentences that are hard to understand at first, but after getting yourself accustomed to that peculiar style of expressing thoughts, you’ll find it much easier to comprehend the meaning.
Some tips for translating poetry
When translating poetry, it’s a good idea to focus on the poem’s emotion and tone.
If the tone is heavy, use heavy words when translating. If it’s cheerful, choose cheerful words.
For poetry is but an emotion in letters and that emotion must be translated properly.
Resources for Japanese poetry
We’ve found some simple poems to get you started over at Matome Naver.
Once you’ve finished up with those few, you can move on to the larger collection of Japanese poems on Nakahara. This should be enough to keep you occupied for about a few centuries so don’t forget to stay hydrated!
4. The Memoirs: Diary Translation
This translation exercise is by far the most interesting one on our list: writing out your diary in Japanese.
Diaries are great. They offer you a chance to vent and release 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 a 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.
Write out everything that’s on your mind: Construct a simple sentence then enrich it with adjectives and adverbs. Try to use as much kanji as you can to help engrave them into your memory.
In order to make it more like 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. The Loyal Friend: Pet Talk
If you have a dog, this exercise is perfect for you! But it’ll also work if you have any other kind of pet.
Talk to your pet a lot, but in Japanese. That way, this scene could become a reality!
Sit, stay, speak!
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. Pronunciation of Japanese words should also get better over time—just make sure you’re actively practicing getting those sounds right.
But what if you don’t have a pet?
Well, in that case, you’ll have to use some extreme measures: You’ll have to wing it.
Talk to yourself. Or talk to your favorite object, your ball, your sword or your toys. Just like a crazy person! A true bilingual crazy person! Sweet!
Fill in the silences
Here’s a valuable tip for you: 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 which are used in those 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 your next word.
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 will actually use in conversation.
You can’t expect to upgrade your skills without working on them. Nothing comes free in life, especially not knowledge. But if you work hard and remain diligent, you’ll achieve great results.
We hope you’ll have fun while trying out our translation exercises. Even more importantly, we hope you expand your Japanese knowledge. So don’t worry and start flexing those brain muscles!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.