How do you even read a Japanese book?

Okay this is a stupid question, but in terms of Japanese reading, do you guys read it word by word while translating it into your native language, or just read it and move along as long as you understand the gist of the sentences and the story?

I’ve tried both ways but there’s always this perfectionist part of me that wouldn’t feel satisfied by just “understanding” it. I’ve always wanted more than just understanding the story, I want to actually KNOW what the nuances mean and even translate the whole book if possible (which I also tried for a book called 余命10年, but only a few chapters so far).

I know it’s better to just read, look up difficult words as they appear (or write them down or even create an anki deck for them if I feel like it), and read it as if I were reading any other English books. I mean, while I’m reading English books, it’s not like I’m translating it into Indonesian (which is my native language), you know?? I just read it. I understand it and move along to the next book or whatever I feel like reading at the moment.

So why does it feel so hard for me to just READ a Japanese book??

I’m currently reading a book called スターティング・オーバー which I’ve read in English 2 years ago and I’ve been wanting to read it in its original language for a long time. Now I’m actually doing it, but I always feel like I need to understand the sentences and words I’m reading in Japanese as if they’re written in English. That’s why I keep comparing the Japanese and English version whenever I’m reading it.

For context, my Japanese level is somewhere between N3 and N2, I think. I’ve never taken nor passed JLPT N3 but I’ve tried so many JLPT N3 mock exams and I passed them all so I guess it’s safe to say that my level is N3-N2.

So yeah. I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what’s the ideal way to read a Japanese book for an Intermediate learner like me? Or for anyone learning Japanese, really.

  • Read it as if you could understand it naturally (don’t try to translate, just take the words in and digest it using your Japanese brain, not your English brain), but look up new words whenever necessary.
  • Become the book’s translator and make it your life’s purpose to translate the whole thing into English. It takes a long time, but this way, you’re REALLY sure that you actually understand everything. But yeah, this takes an insane amount of time for sure.
  • Or…I don’t know. Other ways of reading books that I don’t know yet?
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It seems like your frustration is that you don’t really understand the Japanese as naturally as you do English, so the comparison to reading in English isn’t quite right.

What I’m guessing you really want is to understand all the nuances in Japanese. Translating to another language can be a useful tool for documenting your work and helping you hold a whole complex sentence in your head. But I wouldn’t say it’s necessary, and as you know some nuances don’t translate very well.

I float back and forth between reading for the “gist” and moving past bits I don’t quite get, and reading for comprehension, where I make sure I know what every bit of the sentence is doing. I think both have a place: Sometimes you just want to make some progress, and not get bogged down with every little thing you don’t understand. Other times you want to enhance your comprehension, and really parse things out.

Sometimes I’ll read in two passes, first without minimal lookups, to see how well I can do. Then carefully parsing each tricky sentence to pick up on things I missed or got lost on the first time.

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I would get mad trying to do this. Translating is so freaking hard, and the grammar just doesn‘t match up often times.
Sometimes I get the urge and start thinking about how I would express a sentence in my native language, but then I stop myself and think: „Why? Why waste time on trying to craft a natural sounding sentence when I understand the Japanese just fine?“

So I would recommend just reading on if you feel like you understand it well enough to follow the story. If there are sentences where you feel like you would benefit from breaking it down into parts, parsing word by word, then I would encourage you to do so. You can learn a lot from that. But in general, I try to translate as little as possible, because I am reading a book to enjoy the book, not to practice translation into my native language.

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Great question! I’ve been focusing very heavily on reading, and I’m really happy these days with my ability to comfortably read novels, etc., so maybe I can answer helpfully.

The first and most important thing to note, I think, is that reading is its own skill that needs its own practice.
It’s going to be slow, and intimidating, and sometimes frustrating for a long time.
That “ugh I read this passage but the meaning is so foggy I don’t really understand” feeling sucks, and realizing how slowly you read compared to your native language is demoralizing.
But like anything, it gets better with practice! In particular, the “Japanese brain” you mention is going to start out very small and develop slowly over time.

So starting out, it’s totally natural for it to be hard, especially without spending a long time rewriting every sentence in your head.
I would recommend as possibilities:

  • Keep in mind it’s not the end of the world if you don’t understand a passage fully. Especially since in this case it’s a book you know already. You can always come back to reread it later, and some of my favorite Japanese reading experiences are from rereading something I read a year earlier and realizing “oh huh, I really have improved after all!”
  • If it’s difficult to read to the point of not being fun, consider taking a break and reading something lighter. Manga in particular can be a great option for this because the “I’m sad I don’t understand it easily” feeling is easier to get around because of the pictures.
    When I started reading Legend of Galactic Heroes I was taking hours to maybe figure out a page, and it didn’t feel all that practical or fun. I let it languish while reading more manga (and continuing Wanikani, etc.) and when I came back, it was still tough, but at a level that was a lot more enjoyable. So better tuning the difficulty, so to speak, can be helpful.

About looking things up - there’s enough vocabulary in the world that unfortunately you’re probably going to need to be doing this a LOT for a long time, even for words that aren’t necessarily “difficult.” I’m not sure I appreciated just how many words in a language there are before this…
Later on I think it’s good to have a system you like to handle this - I like making word lists in a dictionary app and exporting them to Anki - but I think that’s only truly important once you’re used to the “rhythm” of reading in Japanese and it feels more like a habit. Starting out, practice and unconsciously internalizing things like common sentence patterns and stuff is the most important thing.

I’m not sure what level you’re at, but are you finding it difficult sometimes to know exactly what to look up?
Like, I noticed a shift after a while. At first starting out, I would have to pick apart a sentence to even figure out where the words began and ended, or I wouldn’t spot conjugations of words I knew at first, or I’d be confused by contractions.
Whereas now after a lot of practice, I can immediately spot which words I don’t know and look them up, which makes reading a lot more practical.
If your experience sounds more like the former, that’s where it’s going to take a lot more time to work out the sentence, and practice will really help.

I’m rambling, but in summary:

  1. Reading takes practice!
  2. If you can have fun reading without fully understanding, don’t worry, the practice will help you improve and it will be easier in the future.
  3. If you can’t have fun reading because you aren’t understanding enough, consider taking a break and reading other material, like manga, graded readers, or easier books.
  4. Reading takes practice!
  5. Try to notice the difference between “not understanding because I didn’t track at all how the sentence was constructed” and “not understanding because I didn’t know one word.” That can help you decide what to do.

Oh! One last thing - it’s also very mood dependent!
If you hit a sentence that’s going to take a lot of thinking and trial and error to piece together, it’s going to be a lot easier to do that if you’re in a good mood and not too tired.
So, if you are tired and that happens… don’t worry about it! Move on or leave it for when you’re more in the mood for it.
Deciphering a language you’re not used to is work, and needs some extra mental energy and it’s okay to not be up for that all the time.

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This

I don’t have studies and stuff, so take my words with a grain of salt. With that being said, I think you should try to read it in japanese and only start breaking stuff down when you know theres something in a sentence you’re not getting. If theres something you just dont get or need to break down, taking time to do so isn’t a bad idea. Otherwise if you can process it in japanese in your head, then do so.

I think with time you just get better at being honest with yourself and noticing when you really don’t understand something. If you catch yourself translating word by word in your head, don’t sweat it honestly. If you’re between N3 and N2 you’re kinda caught in the middle of that transitioning phase.

If I’m interpreting this right, you may have a bit of a misunderstanding. Personally, I never read something “as if” I could understand it. I always make sure I DO understand it, its just that some sentences can be understood naturally while some take some more effort when you’re earlier on in your studies.

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I have been reading since I didn’t even get the gist, just an odd word here or there =P
But I read along with the WK reading groups and got more from the comments.
I’ve kept doing it, found material that was better suited and generally just kept reading.

I basically never look up. Keep telling myself I’ll do it more later, when there are just a few words I don’t get. Honestly, it isn’t my style. I rarely look up anything in English either. Keep on reading and you catch so many words, and when you do see it in a study book or SRS you instantly “Oh I remember that word” and it is so much faster to set a meaning to it and just know it.

Is it the most efficient way? Nah, doubt it! But I enjoy it, so it is worth it =)
ANd love just seeing the progress, just for having gotten to a higher level here on WK (I do little outside WK and reading, though I have stuffy books and Bunpro) My reading understanding keeps going up for every book/manga I read!

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From the little reading I did so far (mostly very easy news articles, kids manga and stories like Momotarou), I try to capture the sense of sentences and definitely not translate :slight_smile: It’s somehow way easier when there is plenty of kanji, because I can then just slide along words.

I would probably go with this. Just let yourself feel the words, the emotions behind them. Just “touch” them like you would do in English :slight_smile:

I’m levels below you in Japanese so not sure whether I can advice more ^^".

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I agree. At some point you have to learn how to read Japanese in Japanese, as Japanese. And there’s only one way to do it.

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From my experience, once you understand what it is that you are reading, you don’t need to translate it unless you are reading it aloud. This may not be the case for everyone though, because I tend not to think in any ‘one language’ unless I am trying to speak or compose a written sentence.

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A lot of great points already in this thread! I also have a “perfectionist” mindset (which I’m trying to chip away at), so what I’ll do if I’m reading on my own is have one book I’m “studying” (keep track of new vocabulary/grammar) and one book for “fun” (just do my best to get the gist).

I definitely think joining in on one of the WK book clubs helps keep me motivated. I’m currently in two, so I’m not reading anything for “fun” like I described above. Instead, I read through a page or two without looking anything up to see how much I initially understand. Then I’ll go back and read while looking up. I don’t know if I’d want to do this for everything I read, but since we translate lines during the read aloud sessions at the end of each week, I figure it helps solidify the meanings of things I’m iffy on.

Definitely make sure you’re choosing things that are the right level for you, though! Reading was really stop and start for me early on because I was trying harder things too soon. Maybe check out some options from this book club books comparison thread?

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It sounds like you need more practice with it… if you imagine trying to translate everything you read in English into your native language, I’m sure you could see how tedious and stilted that would feel. Translating into your native language in your head instead of directly understanding a text is a language learning crutch, one which you’ve already discarded for English. Probably the reason it feels more difficult to get over this crutch in Japanese is because the grammar, sentence structure, and vocab base are so foreign compared to western languages that it takes a much longer time, on average, to learn. I’m not sure what the data is for Indonesian speakers but, for native English speakers at least, Japanese is considered the most difficult language to learn in terms of how many hours you have to put into it.

Also as someone who has passed the N3, I must warn you that the mock exams you find online are magnitudes easier than the actual JLPT test. The test also has a relatively lenient scoring system, meaning that even if you pass the test, there may still be things on the test that you need to study more. (For example, I scored very well on the reading section, but barely scraped by on the vocab & grammar section at the time.) So I’d caution against using JLPT mock tests as a reliable way to figure out where you are.

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I think it’s important to distinguish between “reading for fun” and “reading for deliberate practice”.
Reading for fun or just to get information you can read lightly and not translate most words. This will also allow you to get used to sentence patterns and forcing your brain to stay in Japanese only

Reading for deliberate practice is study time. You can schedule time for it, translate every sentence. Re-read them, see if you understand grammar and nuance, add important vocabulary to an important deck and expand your knowledge. Once the time is up, you can go back into the “reading for fun” time. As you progress, you should start using a JP-JP dictionary, this will also help your brain to get used to just thinking in Japanese and start assimilating larger vocabulary in context.

One other important thing I’ve noticed amongst the hypepolyglots is repetition. Some read an article or book chapter over 50 times. To the point that you almost memorize every word. It is tedious, but the advantages are that your brain starts assimilating the pattern structure of the foreign language and can apply this to future situations. You will also retain the vocabulary in context.
I get a bit tired of this, but I do try to re-read the same chapter 4-5 times at least when I am on study (deliberate practice) time. I’ve just now started adding listening to the audio book (on top of reading it) to the mix and I like the results I am getting.

I am not a hyperpolyglot yet, but I speak 5 languages at advanced/native level + 2 at an intermediate level (Japanese included here, I am about N3+). I’ve applied all the above in my language learning and it has sped up my learning considerably.

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This is interesting to learn! How do you feel about the mock tests in books and prep books like the Shin Kanzen Master series?

For example, I have no desire of taking the actual JLPT, since it wouldn’t have any practical use in my life and I use it mostly just for fun. I do however, use lots of the JLPT books, because I find it a good graded approach to learning and also a practical way of testing my knowledge gaps and fixing them. So, I’ve taken all the exams in the books as my assessment and so far the mock exams seem somewhat consistent across different books (though I found Sou-Matome on the easier side).

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Right-to-left, generally. :stuck_out_tongue:

But in all seriousness, yeah, I typically just read it and go for the gist. Sometimes I get it wrong, but the more reading I do, the less often that happens. I usually discover, when someone asks a question in the book club threads, that I’m skipping over the nitty-gritty of the grammar, but if I’m getting the gist correct, does that really matter? :slightly_smiling_face:

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The Shinkanzen Master books are pretty in line with the test, and if anything, harder at times.

As far as mock tests go, it depends on what exactly is being referred to. If you are referring to the specific mock tests you can buy, they are all old JLPT tests. So I would say they are exactly as difficult as the test.

But overall, I don’t really think that the mock tests should be significantly easier. It is more that, on a year to year basis, the difficulty of the test can vary somewhat. Not majorly, but just a little bit through the choice of questions and the topic of the readings. Also, sometimes you get lucky and already know all about a topic a given reading is about.

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This is a good point and building off that a bit:
“translating every sentence as you go” isn’t practical 100% of the time but can be worthwhile for key sentences if you’re especially confused,
but “retelling the story to yourself” afterward in your own words I think is always worthwhile.

If you’re lost and don’t know what’s going on and couldn’t retell it, slow down; but glossing over details and grammar is fine if you can track and recall what’s happening.
And heck, that applies for books in English as well!

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Hi!

There are two kinds of reading you reference in your post; and ideally you’ll mix in both of these to your learning to maximise your improvement in the language.

The advice I was given was to start on this as part of study routine from around WK L10 / N5 grammar / Mid Genki I so you have a base vocab and can understand simple sentences. However I’m also aware of people starting sooner and later successfully so it’s really up to you. Don’t wait until you feel “ready” though - that only comes (I hope) with more reading!

  1. Extensive reading
    Approach: read as much as you can, at a level where you can follow the story and understand the general gist. Don’t spend too long looking up words and grammar you don’t understand, and if you’re feeling this holds you up find simpler material. Tadoku readers, kids books with pictures, and graded readers are great for this. I’ve not tried but easy manga/VN could also work. Loads of suggestions for material across the WK forums.
    Aims: Maximise exposure to more content; enjoy the stories, get into the flow of the book

  2. Intensive reading
    Approach: Work through a passage a sentence or phrase at a time, looking up vocab and grammar points. Possibly go over the same passage multiple times to enhance comprehension. Try and pick something that’s stretching your level so you’re exposed to some new words/concepts, but not so much you need to look up every other word. To me this is more like “study time” than leisure time, but it gives you a real understanding of how sentences are constructed. I might only get through one page in an hour doing this, but I’m sure I’ll speed up in time. Parallel translations can be useful here too (though not essential).
    Aims: Understanding and increasing vocab, seeing and getting used to grammatical patterns and constructs.

Most people find one easier than the other - I really struggle with wanting to understand everything and I’m not that excited by really simple books, but at the rate I can read intensively it takes me so long i never get into the material “for pleasure” so I need to keep going with both to improve my level and I’ll move on to more complex material for extensive reading over time.

Hope that helps!

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I’ve never heard of doing this many re-reads before. How do you usually do it? Do you switch between levels of intensity or do you take the same approach each time? Is 4-5 a number you set for yourself or is that when you feel like you’ve reached a strong understanding and don’t need to do it anymore? Do you do this for all chapters regardless of how easy or difficult they are?

I’m really curious haha

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Not a lot to add that isn’t already here.

I would recommend starting where you did as a child, at least until you get accustomed to how things are written and the flow of the language. That is, read children’s stories and similar meant for children to read. Graded readers are also pretty fantastic as are books geared toward helping you learn; the ones that give you a story with furigana, and English on the same page, followed by the same story without any of the training wheels.

I’m still working my way through becoming comfortable with how Japanese looks and sounds in my head.

As others have stated, don’t translate. If you do this and become accustomed to it, expect to have trouble when speaking in a real world situation as the extra seconds can feel like a lifetime in actual conversations as you try to translate back and forth.

You need to learn to think in Japanese so you can read and speak in Japanese.

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Japanese is not my first new language, so while I’m not there in Japanese just yet, I know when I have moved toward fluency in other languages, I tended to be more and more likely not to translate to my native language, and just allow my brain to understand it in it’s existing language. The goal of fluency isn’t really to be an expert real-time translator 100% of the time, but it’s not like I decided to stop translating, one day I just… did. I think it’s just raw practice that got me there. Now I am annoyed when someone asks me to translate a joke I understand because that seems like so much extra work.

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