So difficult it’s unreadable?

So I was doing my reviews as usual; and as I was typing, my mind, as usual, started drifting off into these thoughts that I always get.
But all of a sudden a thought pierces through!
I quickly open a new tab on my browser, and in the search bar I type this question:

Are there any Japanese books that are so hard, even native Japanese can’t read them?

To my astonishment, the Internet, for once, couldn’t give me the answer I so desperately needed. In fact it instead tried to give me some easy, cheap, rubbish books to “boost my Japanese”: no FluentU, not today.
Thus, in search of Truth, I turn myself toward the lovely WaniKani community for answers.

And so:

Do you know some Japanese books that are so hard, even native Japanese can barely read them?


I’m going to assume The Tale of Genji, I was just reading its wiki a few days ago:

“Because it was written to entertain the Japanese court of the eleventh century, the work presents many difficulties to modern readers. First and foremost, Murasaki’s language, Heian period court Japanese, was highly inflected and had very complex grammar.”

I have no clue if modern renditions of the work give natives an easier time.


I mean… it’s just like English. The more literary flourishes in the prose style, and especially the farther back in time you go, the more difficult it will be for the average consumer to read.
Some topics you may be interested in are 古文/文語 for classical literary language, 漢文 for Japanese texts written in classical Chinese, 崩し字 for cursive that’s just literally hard to make out, etc…

For (very old) classics, like The Tale of Genji as mentioned, you’ll often see modern translations, in the same way that you’ll see modern translations of Old English works like Beowulf.


Aye. I think the Canterbury Tales is probably the edge of what would be intelligible to modern English speakers:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote ,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roots,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;


Age aside, I don’t personally know what the equivalent of like a Finnegans Wake would be, of something just plain difficult stylistically. But I’m sure books like that exists too.

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You don’t even have to go back to Old English - anything written before the kana orthographic reform in 1946 is definitely gonna come across extremely ye olde style if it hasn’t been updated. Kana is used in different ways, many verbs conjugate differently, and quite possibly even some older and archaic kanji will be showing up. Not sure if they’d be unreadable, to be fair, but it’d certainly be challenging.


Not to mention the use of Kana that have since been deprecated from standard education, looking at you “wi” and “we” (Historical kana orthography - Wikipedia)

After WWII the United States made the Emperor publicly renounce his claim to divinity on the radio. His Japanese was supposedly so rarefied and polite/complex sounding that the radio station had to broadcast a second announcement to explain what the Emperor had just said to laypeople.


If you read something like 君たちはどう生きるか, which was written before the reforms, you’re likely reading the revised editions, which I believe the original author undertook himself. It’s probably possible to find the original somehow, but I don’t know if it would actually be “unreadable” to natives at this point.


Google gave me a link to the book off website that lists 4 “incredibly difficult” books (超難解本).


this is just like this conversation that @yamitenshi and i had about how terrifying shakespeare is, so i imagine there is an equivalent in japanese, probably the tale of genji

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i don’t-
is he speaking tongues?

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I posted about it in @Marifly 's Polish thread I think, but there was one Japanese lady, who said in an interview that she preferred Polish translations of Murakami’s books over originals - she said that while they weren’t outright unreadable, they were hard.


Maybe the Japanese translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses? :rofl:


In Polish, you mean? :thinking: I’ve only read 1Q84, but it was on the easy side in terms of language.


Yes, she said that she found Polish translations more enjoyable and easier to read than originals. I think she mentioned that she found Murakami’s style to be somewhat hard to get through for her.

?? I only ever read most of the the Wind up bird chronicle in my native language (had to give it back to the library) and it was very simple stylistically speaking. Very simple and straightforward language compared to other authors I’ve read. :thinking:

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I haven’t read any of his works neither in Japanese nor in any other language, so I can’t say. But translation always changes the style at least a bit I think. (And sometimes quite considerably).

But you said it too - that you found translation of the book simple and straightforward, just like her. That still doesn’t mean that it was also like that in Japanese :wink:

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No, I thought you said it was harder (and thus more enjoyable) in Polish…
But then, uh, I have no idea what she meant.
(Maybe she just doesn’t read that much?)

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Maybe, I’m not sure. But she said that she couldn’t manage to finish the originals, while she found the translations to be easier and that she enjoyed them.

The context was, that the guy interviewing her said that Murakami’s books are somewhat infamous among Japanese learners because of their alleged difficulty, and that there are rumors that even Japanese people find them difficult. And she kind of confirmed by saying that she also found them hard.

The only thing I can say is that her Polish was great :wink:

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