Learning by Translation: The Hard Path

I guess this would be the post where I try to convince people to just don’t give a damn about the supposed difficulty power levels & start off with the moderately aesthetically powerful levels of Literature out there in any language.


Yes, this is the stupidest thing to do in order to learn a language. Even Chekhov made fun of it in his short story called Expensive Lessons:

The next evening when the clock pointed to five minutes to seven, Mdlle. Enquête appeared, rosy from the frost. She opened Margot, which she had brought with her, and without introduction began:

“French grammar has twenty-six letters. The first letter is called A, the second B . . .”

“Excuse me,” Vorotov interrupted, smiling. “I must warn you, mademoiselle, that you must change your method a little in my case. You see, I know Russian, Greek, and Latin well. . . . I’ve studied comparative philology, and I think we might omit Margot and pass straight to reading some author.”

And he explained to the French girl how grown-up people learn languages.

“A friend of mine,” he said, “wanting to learn modern languages, laid before him the French, German, and Latin gospels, and read them side by side, carefully analysing each word, and would you believe it, he attained his object in less than a year. Let us do the same. We’ll take some author and read him.”

The French girl looked at him in perplexity. Evidently the suggestion seemed to her very naïve and ridiculous. If this strange proposal had been made to her by a child, she would certainly have been angry and have scolded it, but as he was a grown-up man and very stout and she could not scold him, she only shrugged her shoulders hardly perceptibly and said:

“As you please.”

But such a method has its benefits. It only works if you’re a true Literature junkie. In other words, you have to be perfectly happy to stare at a sentence for 1 hour – Googling up the grammar and vocabulary until you get it. But if you are the kind of weirdo that can ruminate over a sentence for so long, then this is a great way to maintain motivation – since every sentence becomes a kind of treasure box or jigsaw puzzle to solve.

Of course, it also helps you get acquainted with the best of the Literature right away. You start off with the profundities, so that you don’t have to wade through the grammatical knots and strings, and boring sentences that are only there to showcase the grammar bits in their simplest form possible.

Finally, it re-ignites your romance towards languages in general, because you have to find novel ways towards crafting the other language into your current language in order to achieve the best possible version. It gives you a lot of training for that ‘getting out of the shell’ that you need if you are planning to be a translator in the future.

There’s probably a reason why Vorotov used the anecdote of his friend & the Gospels in the Chekhov extract. The Gospels is a wisdom text that anyone is quite familiar with, and it provides more of Wisdom & Aesthetics rather than narrative, so a person trying to do translation-learning from it would have every sentence be a treasure in itself, and would not try to push forward to the other parts of the text. This is also part of the logic behind learning Classical Chinese from the early texts like the Analects & the Tao Te Ching, which are just beautiful diamonds to hold in your hand when you’re trying to approach the study of the language. The other reason is that Classical Chinese is inherently cumulative on meanings in past texts, because the language itself is so context dependent.

But, of course, if you’re learning Japanese, you’re learning it to read these supposedly grandiose Visual Novels & Light Novels that you’ve been hearing about.


When I was enlisted in National Service, since I had so much free time in camp (and computers that are not certified by the Army are banned there), I would just copy over lines & lines from Cross Channel or other texts into a blank exercise book and sit in some secluded corner where I could use my phone dictionary (since smartphones are viewed as necessary now, they aren’t banned) to attack each sentence.

This is really inefficient at the start, but my speed managed to ramp up from 1 hour a sentence to 20 minutes a sentence to even faster. I can probably recite the opening of Cross Channel by heart since I spent so bloody long to grapple with it. It’s a good thing that Romeo’s language is hyper-streamlined, and also beautiful.

Problematically, the best way of learning through translation is to have a parallel text with you – which I didn’t have. Without that double-check, you may find yourself making mistakes in interpretation that wouldn’t have resulted had you been able to make comparisons. That would probably make someone like Murakami to be a good choice since he both falls under the minimal standard for aesthetics (it feels good to read – although content may be overbearing to some) & he has a kind of simple style & he also has Jay Rubin to help with the translation-machine.

My recent discovery of the massive amount of Chinese LN translation sites out there has also increased the levels of parallel comparisons that I can access – but you need to know Chinese for that of course & be able to navigate Baidu well enough

But the most important thing would be to read books that don’t make you press on for the next part. In other words, these books mustn’t be particularly narrative-driven, or if they are, then the narrative must be extremely comfortable. Cross Channel falls under this category because half of the joy comes from the mood of the soft piano soundtrack clashing with the eccentric comedy scenes & poeticisms. Reading an Oriental text combined with light poetics, light comedy, and a light soundtrack encapsulates that maximally weaboo atmosphere that makes you feel as though you’re one of those old sagely essay writers from China, writing stuff with names like “Six Records of a Floating Life” while sipping Baijiu & Peach-tinted Sake inside a pavilion – with mono no aware & wabi-sabi & tea-ceremony type shit.


Come to think of it, I forgot that Kanji may be an absurdly high barrier of entry for people who aren’t acquainted with Chinese. Let it be warned that the method of translation may not be the best way to systematically get acquainted with Vocabulary, since you won’t be able to trigger the spaced repetition methods of learning when you’re reading random texts.

I still have to use hooks and dictionaries because I haven’t dealt with Kanji enough as compared to grammar – and because I have very bad memories about mugging Chinese in my early education years. I reckon that good literary texts help with mnemonic recognition better than all the types of scenarios that Heisig comes up with – and that’s why I can still remember what 記憶 & 豪華な私室 & 目を奪われた means thanks to Romeo Tanaka, as well asひらひら服 & 世界の限界 thanks to SCA-JI – at the cost of remembering simpler stuff.

One of the reasons why you should aim for the cream of the crop works, anyway, is that if a work was really so-called ‘cream of the crop’, then it would immediately be able to ignite your feelings no matter how many times you read it afterwards. In fact, it should contain even more wealth with subsequent rewatchings. This is why I can watch certain movies from any random scene and turn myself over to the power instantly. Every small part reflects the whole, and thus upon completion, no matter how long and how slow you took to get through it – once all the pieces comes together in your head, you can go back and just breeze through it a second time.

Understandably, soundtrack may be a problem in some Visual Novels. Listening to the booming epic soundtrack of Dies Irae is going to be a pain in your head if you have to untangling that thick prose for hours. This is probably why those kinds of battle Chuuni works should not be what you should first aim for. Sadly, this is what most people aim for rather than the calmly poetic, emotional and comic SoL works.

Anyway, the bottomline is that you must approach language as the end, or the joy to itself, rather than the means – if you want to find a way of learning where you don’t have to go through the whole bottom-up process.