Source for better (ie, more Japanese-like) meanings?

Hi all,

In my studies I’ve noticed a couple meanings have been “English-fied” and thus don’t quite capture the nuance of the original Japanese. For example, 分かる has been given the meaning ‘to understand’ (which implies action on something, eg, to understand something, which is transitive), but the more literal translation is ‘to break down (on its own)’ which more correctly captures the fact that this verb is intransitive and is a nuance I otherwise would have missed if I didn’t have other sources pointing me in the right direction. I’ve noticed a few other word meanings that also don’t quite map onto their transitivity, but I’m sure I’ve missed many other words that have had the English-translation treatment applied to them which I won’t notice until after I’ve drilled them into my head incorrectly. Does anybody have recommendations as to sources with more literal translations?


I would encourage not to bother with it for now. The meaning(s) WK give(s) you are for the most part very good translations. You’ll come to understand nuance with enough exposure to the language. Looking them up on Jisho or other dictionaries (even Google Translate might surprise you) every now and then might be useful if you have doubts, but listening to spoken Japanese and reading native materials (as much as you can right now) will be much better.


as @anon6098980 said, i would not worry about it until you know more kanji and can use a j-j dictionary.

If you are really worried about the nuances, you can use several j-e dictionaries to crosscheck such as Jisho.

But really, Wanikani isn’t made for vocab learning, you should be doing that with other resources!

Edit: Sorry I forgot to point you in the direction of other resources! This deck is well known and widely used for vocab learning using Anki.


@anon6098980 @Bowtron Thanks for the responses. That puts me a bit at ease I guess - it was rather disheartening to realize that I wasn’t learning Japanese but rather English approximation! But I guess that’ll come eventually.

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Like it has already been said in here, wait until you can manage to use a j-j dictionary or read a lot.

There’s a neat script which includes definitions in lessons page:

WaniKani External Definition

Here’s how it looks:

You can keep the script there, that way you’ll know where you’re ready if you always try to read the j-j definitions.


This is always the case for learning a new language though; a translation will always require an approximation. It’s the best you can do at the beginning, but when you start using the language you start getting a grip on those nuances and the other language that you started learning with (English in this case) will slowly become unnecessary.


Thanks for this, installed and I look forward to the day I can make use of it :slight_smile:


Wanikani always gives you the transitivity in the lesson. And I don’t mean through the English translation; it says “Intransitive Verb” or “Transitive Verb” on the side bar.

Teaching people that 分かる means “to break down on its own” would be… really strange to me. I get that you’re trying to factor in the meaning of the kanji, but I’ve always thought of “to be clear” as the intransitive translation that still retains the meaning.

If you see that the natural translation of a word conflicts with the literal translation, there’s always the synonym tool.

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@reichter, I’m with you on this: I’d rather learn, from the beginning, how the different words relate to each other. In fact, your translation of 分かる is quite helpful to me.

But I’m coming to understand how few other people think this way, and can make this work for them from the beginning. As a teacher myself, I have been giving this sort of explanation to my students, but I’m coming to see that most of them (and they’re bright students) simply can’t remember both things: the literal translation and the way it corresponds to our English usage. Trying to teach both seems obvious to me—it really makes things memorable and hang together—but apparently I’m far from the majority.

But it’s always true that when you’re learning by translating, you’re learning approximations. Some approximations are closer than others, but if you tried to understand exactly how a word is used, you’d end up with paragraphs of information about each word. I’ve used sources that try to explain too many nuances of each word as it’s presented (Jorden), and I find that worse than being presented with too little.

Sometimes I go back to that sort of information once I’m more comfortable with a word, but other times I do trust that in the end, either (1) I will see and hear so much of the language that these things will work themsleves out, or (2) I will make mistakes with the language that (through being corrected) lead me to the right questions that then lead me to a better understanding, or (3) I will never reach the level that such a distinction matters at all. And in case (3), I’d rather learn more language than perfect language.

An example from my own Spanish teaching is


me llamo, in Spanish, which translates my name is but which means, literally, I call myself. I’ve always thought that we do students a real disservice by translating it my name is, because that leads to the conclusion that “me” is “my,” and “llamo” is “name”—and that the be verb is unnecessary. So with my latest crop of students, I’ve emphasized this from the beginning—with discussions and exercises meant to build from the beginning on this understanding.

And guess what? Even my second-years, who were never exposed to me translating “me llamo” as “my name is” over two years of teaching, still sometimes think that “llamo” means “name.”

Somehow I have kept them from saying me gusto or just gusto (for “I like”), though. Most of the time. For which I’m grateful.

(Edited: Why didn’t the spoiler thing work? I switched to a summary to hide it instead of the blur, because it wasn’t blurring anything even though it started and ended with the spoiler /spoiler things.)


I really appreciate your response. I definitely agree with the sentiment that the perfect can sometimes be the enemy of the good, but I think in this case using rough approximations like ‘to understand’ actually does learners a disservice once they try to employ the word in context of actual Japanese grammar.

I think your examples from Spanish really hit the nail on the head* and carry over into Japanese quite well. Take the sentence 僕は本が分かりました。The function of the が particle becomes completely incomprehensible if we take ‘to understand’ as the the meaning of わかる. The book is the doer of understanding? No, the book broke down for me (into component parts; and thus I was able to understand it). I understand the intent behind Anglifying words, but all it does it make the grammar far more difficult than it has to be.

*You might really like the text Unlocking Japanese by Cure Dolly who uses a very similar example (me gusta el tequila) to illustrate why Anglifying words can be detrimental to learners and can make the language seem much more arbitrary than it really is.


Learning how to use a J-J dictionary is the best bet IMHO.


I was worried that might be the answer – the trick is I have to learn a bunch of Japanese – some of it incorrectly – before I can actually use those resources :sweat_smile: Still, plenty of people have walked this path before me and come out fine, so, as earlier posters suggested, I won’t worry about it too much and try to make corrections where I find them.

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I still don’t see how WK taught anything incorrectly. They told you 分かる was intransitive when they taught it, but it’s not a grammar site, so they’re not going to labor over emphasizing that it’s going to be paired with が.


Pretty much.

Dictionary definitions tend to use only a subset of the language though, so don’t be put off thinking that you need to have mastered Japanese (I surely haven’t) before it can be helpful.

It’s a skill that pays for itself over and over.

My biggest danger is the wiki-hole effect actually. I’ll look up a word and realise a couple of hours later that I had looked up some word up for a reason!


I’m trying to fight the conclusion that seems obvious: that mastering the grammar of a language is so hard for most people that it’s better to just do the best you can with approximations and let them make a hash of it where they will.

I’m fighting it. Hard. In fact, I’m writing a curriculum that I hope will make these things clear—not just by explaining, but by offering sufficient practice that more people will be able to really think in Spanish. But I admit to being a bit discouraged at the moment. I’m just taking it as an incentive to continue to improve my methods, though.

And no method will ever work for everyone. Still, I think that this sort of thing is helpful to a number of people.

This is one of the reasons I like Tae Kim: because when I read his stuff, I can see how Japanese hangs together, rather than learning a list of how X happens and then how Y happens.

I agree that WK didn’t really do anything wrong here, by the way. And I think that the kanji themselves can help with this—the combination of the 分 character and the intransitive character of 分かる was enough to draw the proper conclusion. Of course, I didn’t draw that conclusion. I just wish (sort of) that it were all easier…

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It is pretty hard, but I think approximations are the way to get started. It allows you to at least get the gist of what you try to read, and from then on I think it all sorts itself out as you read. When I was learning English, I never bothered much with details of grammar or nuance of words, but I read so much that I unconsciously acquired a great deal of that kind of knowledge.

Unlike some people here, as I see from comments on the forum, I’m not looking for accurate definitions or nuance, I don’t think this is the place to learn those things.

Absolutely. For some people, approximations might not work, for example, and they might want to know the stuff as accurately as possible before getting started.


WK isn’t doing anything that most of the E-J learning material isn’t also doing, hence why I just asked for for additional resources rather than asking WK to change anything. As you pointed out earlier, I can also just make these changes myself by putting in custom synonyms, but I don’t always know what the literal translation is. For example, I probably would not have arrived at ‘to break down’ or ‘to become clear’ for 分かる by myself, and it seems I’ll need a J-J dictionary to really get at what I want.

As for it being incorrect, well it’s not incorrect per se. For functional purposes, translating it as ‘to understand’ will allow you to hash your way through most any sentence just fine. I want to make clear that in general I think rough approximations are fine. However, in cases such as this, I think that the more literal translation helps learners actually gain mastery of the grammar because as it stands it makes other components of the language more difficult (e.g., by making the が particle seem arbitrary or inscrutable). WK telling us the word’s transitivity is great, but if I’m a learner who doesn’t really grasp of Japanese transitivity or assumes it’s the same as English transitivity (and I imagine many of us are – I was one such until I took pains to figure it out), the first thing I think whenever I see 分かる is going to be ‘to understand (something)’ which is going to cause a lot of problems down the line. I just think it would be nice if our learning tools didn’t build issues like this into our knowledge. Japanese is hard enough as is!


These kinds of questions appeared within the first few lessons I ever had in Japanese, because people usually notice very quickly that 知る uses を and 分かる uses が. And from there it was just a given that when I learn a word I need to see it in action before I’d consider using it.

I think the hardest thing is checking する verbs made from nouns, because the dictionary entry for the noun will usually tell you if making it a verb with する is possible, but usually won’t indicate what the transitivity of said verb is. You kind of just have to go look for example sentences.


I don’t think it has to be hard – or rather, it’s going to definitely be hard, but it doesn’t have to be arbitrary! If grammar seems arbitrary, learners are going to be demoralized and unmotivated and aren’t going to actually gain mastery of the grammar because why bother when you can’t figure out what は and が are all about or what’s going on when も is masking other particles. In general using general approximations for things is fine, but not if they turn the grammar into a hash! For example, I watched a good deal of anime when I was younger and internalized 好き as the verb ‘to like’ because that’s how it always got Anglified in the subtitles. When I started studying grammar more recently, I was really struggling with the sentence 魚が好きです. It translates into “I like fish,” but the layout of the sentence was totally baffling to me. “The fish likes” is what I was getting thanks to the が particle being there, and how did that make any sense? I just cataloged that away as some oddity of Japanese until awhile later it dawned on me that 好き is an adjective (‘likeable’), not a verb! Suddenly everything made sense (at least for a little while . . .). Anyway, that’s just an example of how approximation via Anglification can lead learners into pitfalls that make the grammar a whole lot harder.

I’m going to really recommend you check out the KawaJapa website for some inspiration. Their entire thing is that Japanese seems hard because so many of our materials try to force it into a Western paradigm. When viewed through that lens, yes, Japanese is full of exceptions and arbitrary. However, they’ve managed to convince me that there’s a method to the madness. Check out their article on transitivity here: Mastering Transitivity Pairs – Remembering Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs the easy way - it was quite eye-opening for me. As a caveat, the people who maintain this site are odd ducks – doesn’t make their work any less insightful though!

Definitely find out what works for you though :slight_smile: at the end of the day, these are all means to an end, and learning is definitely not a one-size-fits all sort of deal.


Just a heads up, 好き is a na-adjective.