24.08.2010 at 12:00 am

Matt Treyvaud -- writer, translator and linguist -- of No-Sword, has been kind enough to answer several Japanese language-related inquiries I've put to him concerning kanji, Japanese literature, classical Japanese, and general language-learning hurdles.

Matt's advice/tips have been helpful to me, and I realize that they may also be of use and interest to other language learners, so I've decided to put them up here (with his permission).


  1. Some editing has been done for coherency and readability.

  2. The following paragraphs do not reflect the order our correspondences actually went.

Matt's Early forays into language learning

1. Could you share some of your experiences from the time when you were still a beginner in Japanese? How did you cope with the difficult grammatical parts -- i.e. combined passives-causatives, usage of あげる・くれる・もらう(s), etc. What were your study methods? How did you go about solving those problems that did crop up? I'm having some difficulties with these aspects of Japanese myself, which explains the interest.

I started learning Japanese after I already had a degree in linguistics, and my approach was always very much based on that...

That, and I got the dictionaries of Japanese grammar (Makino/Tsutsui) as early as possible. They explain virtually everything you will run into, in English. (By the time you start encountering stuff that's not in them, you can (already) read Japanese reference books...)

Apart from that, I didn't really have any study methods... just lots of practice. And (by) always trying to think in Japanese, rather than translating it to/from English in my head. (By) using Japanese/Japanese dictionaries as early as possible, etc.

Really my main tip is this: never let yourself get complacent. Once you can read sentences, try to read manga. Once you can read manga, try reading short stories.. then novels.. then Classical Japanese...

Autodidactism versus classes

2. Are you entirely self-taught, or did you attend classes? (I believe that languages should be a personal effort primarily, but chiseled to perfection with the help of personal language tutors; i.e. I don't believe in language classes. I wonder if you share the same view.)

I had a fairly intensive Japanese class for a year. (Equivalent to one year of university education.) Then I came to Japan and practiced. I guess I am self-taught in that sense, although since I worked at a high school and was friends with one of the Japanese (国語) teachers, I would often ask him for help or to explain something that I had run across.

One thing I would warn you about being self-taught is pitch accent. It is not written down as you know. My accent is highly unusual because I did not make the effort to learn it along with new words.

Learning kanji

3. When you were learning Japanese, did you practice writing kanji to help you memorize those kanji beyond the scope of the 常用漢字 (especially the obscure ones, like Buddhism-related kanji), or did you just let the kanji sink in slowly, and only via reading?

For the first year kanji were part of (my) course, including the usual writing drills etc. I estimate that I learned about 100-200 over that period, starting with the usual easy ones (一、二、三、日、 月、人、etc).

Since then, just reading. Honestly (it) doesn't take that long to sink in. Context is everything for me.

(Note: Read Matt's views on learning kanji.)

Reading appetite, and word-list/context-based vocabulary acquisition

4. I'm aware that you read a lot, but during those intermediate-advanced moments when progress didn't feel quite like the leaps-and-bounds of the beginner stage, how much did you actually read (so as to continue the process of absorbing many other words)? Complete books, or just short stories, or mangas, etc? Did you do word-lists and the sort, or were you more of a based-on-context sort of person?

I started out reading manga (and blogs), then short stories, then novels, then classics. Never did word-lists.

It's true that progress stops feeling so dramatic once you get good enough, but on the other hand, ideally what you are reading will itself be interesting enough. (For example I made a point of reading books not available in English -- untranslated stuff by Murakami Haruki, new books that had won the Akutagawa prize, etc. It was enjoyable to then be able to follow along with the literary conversation about these things.)

Early excursions into Japanese literature

5. I've been going through the following books -- Breaking into Japanese Literature, Exploring Japanese Literature and Read Real Japanese Fiction. All three, I find, are excellent, and they do help me wade through literature that were seemingly-impenetrable previously. I assume that such books were not available to you when you were first starting out, so how did you cope with Japanese literature then?

I think one of them was available, actually...

To be honest, I just did my best. I'm sure that I misunderstood at least 20% of the first novel I read. No big deal, it's only a novel. If I had a friend (native speaker) handy, I would ask them. Something (that's) really baffling I would save up and ask a different friend next time I saw them. Gradually, the number and type of patterns you have encountered grows, and you become more able to deal with new things by fitting them into the system.

Matt's opinion on Japanese language readers

6. Any opinions on the above books, and would they really be helpful in enabling one to read Japanese literature?

I haven't read any, but I do strongly believe that it is only by doing something that one can get better at that thing, so reading Japanese literature should make you better at reading (more) Japanese literature. I also don't see why it should hurt to have the English available too -- in fact it ought to help, as long as you are disciplined enough not to read it until you've tried the Japanese first. So I assume that those books are a good learning tool.

Handling difficult sentence structures

7. Putting aside constant dictionary references, how did you cope with the weirder sentence structures that didn't make sense at all (especially when there was no English translation at hand, which might have led to completely misunderstanding whole paragraphs)?

(E.g. from 藪の中: 「しかし娘はどうなりましたやら、婿のことはあきらめましても、これだけは 心配でなりません」. Until I came by the English translation, the sentence meant nothing to me, especially because of the interposing of 婿 in between 娘 and 心配.)

The first thing I think is to keep in mind that "doesn't make sense" is a subjective judgment. This maybe isn't the case in a blog or something written by a non-native speaker, but in a printed work of fiction, you can be 99% certain that every sentence has been carefully honed to mean something -- at least one thing -- and something sensible that you should be able to determine from context too. If all else fails, seriously, break it down.

So I don't think I actually read 藪の中 until I was already fairly advanced, but the hints here would be:

So to break it down:

"But what can have happened to my daughter? I've given up hope for [the man who would become] my son-in-law, but this has me beside myself with worry."

At this point, it should become fairly clear that "this" is her daughter. And knowing this you can re-read the sentence to reanalyze it and making it less awkward.

Particularly in dialogue, you will often find that thoughts are half-finished, or seem to run into each other. But context should help. Of course at times the author will be obscure on purpose.

Classical Japanese

8. I haven't yet set out with classical Japanese, but I intend to, later. Aside from intellectual interest and the commercial possibilities of knowing classical Japanese, are there any advantages in being able to read it?

Also, are there people who still write in Classical Japanese? i.e. I don't think anyone writes in Middle English anymore -- unless there's some sadomasochistic pleasure to be derived from it -- but that's English; I don't know if it's the same case for the Japanese language.

No one still writes in classical Japanese as far as I know, but there are advantages.

Basically the advantages are the same as learning earlier forms of English: you have more insight into the current form of the language (why it is how it is), and you can read works written in the earlier period or mimic the language of that period.

The translating experience

9. I read with interest the experiences of Professor Jay Rubin in translating The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (a quick excerpt can be found here, if you're interested) and I wonder, as a professional translator, if you would describe the translating experience the very same way?

Yes, very much so. Translating is the best way I know of really getting to know a text. If you have freedom with the source text, it's also an opportunity to superimpose your own ideas and experiment.

Filed under:
Words: 1736 words approx.
Time to read: 6.94 mins (at 250 wpm)
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