Monthly Archives: November 2015

Japanese book review: “Candy Candy Final Story”

“Candy Candy” is a Japanese historical Shoujo (girls) manga written by Keiko Nagita (名木田 恵子) which was originally published in the magazine “Nakayoshi” serially from 1975 to 1979. It was quite popular, and spawned an anime, theatrical show, and several novels. To give an idea of the popularity, around 12 million copies were printed in total for the Manga books, and in one year around $8 billion yen (around $65 million dollars with current exchange rates) were made from dolls themed around the various characters of the series.

A three-volume novel was published in 1978 and 1979 with some plot differences from the original comic books. The books which I am reviewing, “Candy Candy Final Story” (キャンディ・キャンディ Final Story), are a rewrite of that, including some changes in places like place descriptions. I haven’t read the original novels but I’ve heard the main plot doesn’t change much, if at all. The story is comprised of two books, notated in Japanese as 上 and 下 (common conventions that literally mean “up” and “down”).

“Final Story” follows Candice (nicknamed “Candy”), a young girl, who was abandoned as a child and raised at an orphanage. She is eventually adopted, but struggles with cruel treatment from her new family because of her background, and eventually manages to get out into the world and make a living for herself. No coming-of-age story would be complete without romantic elements, and this book is full of those including several people Candy becomes interested in. It has been said the original creators (Nagita plus the illustrator of the original work and someone from the publisher) took elements from several classic works such as “Anne of Green Gables”, “Daddy Long Legs”, and “Heidi”. Reading through, I was also reminded of “Cinderella” in a few places.

In spite of the fact this tale was originally written for young girls, as a man in my thirties I was still able to associate with the main character’s plight, especially regarding the romantic elements. My interest waxed and waned at various points, but some of the plot twists at the end made the ride well worth it. This work contains several important universal themes woven into it, including acceptance of the unchangeable past and unforeseeable future, as well as a belief that all people are good at heart.

As with many works which went on to gain major popularity, sometimes it’s hard to put your finger exactly on why it became so big. Despite the fact that there aren’t too many new elements in this story, it’s reason for greatness is the way everything is put together as a whole, and ultimately how it sways your emotions and makes you really feel for the main character. I also have a hunch that giving the story a Western setting (America among other places) contributed a large part to Candy Candy’s success in Japan.

Linguistically, the level of the Japanese is much lower than many other works I’ve read, though you still would probably need at least a year or two of study to be able to make it through. The Kanji level is also pretty reasonable, and I’d say that roughly 80% of the characters are in the standard Joyo kanji list. The beginning of the book is heavy on description, which can take more time to read, but at a certain point dialog dominates the story. Letters to or from Candy make up a portion of the novel, and those provide an interesting change in style. One of the things that did trip me up was the many references to flowers (and flowers are major part of the story, as you can guess from the book’s cover), because looking those up in a dictionary returned unfamiliar flower names. For times like these, I would suggest just doing a Google image search with the flower name in Japanese.

Regardless of your age or sex, if you are studying Japanese I think the Candy Candy series is a great way to learn more about Japan’s Shoujo genre, whether you start with the anime or novel. If you do try the anime, keep in mind it’s from the 1970s, so don’t expect too much from the visuals.

There doesn’t seem to be a English translation published for “Final Story” yet, though a French version does exist.  Supposedly they are in talks to make one, though I don’t think there is anything committed yet. There is a fan-fiction piece which has been written in English that you can check out here, though this is only loosely based on the original plot. I wasn’t able to find a fan translation of “Final Story” in English, which was surprising. I am actually toying with the idea of trying to translate a small portion of the novel myself, though it would be mostly just for practice and completely unofficial. If this something you would enjoy reading, please let me know.

(Note: There has been some backlash regarding these two books because of the title “Final Story” and the fact the publisher seems to have marked it more as a new story instead of a re-write of an existing one, although the author has stated it was never intended to be a completely new story. But if you are new to Candy Candy, then this probably won’t concern you too much.)

References

http://www.amazon.co.jp/小説キャンディ・キャンディ-FINALSTORY-(上)-名木田恵子/dp/4396460309/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1448454315&sr=8-2&keywords=final+story+キャンディ

https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/キャンディ・キャンディ

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candy_Candy

http://candycandyfinalstory.tumblr.com

http://candyterry.com/the.season.of.the.daffodils.pdf

http://candyterry.com/ccmedia/ccoriginalnovels.html

Japanese Vocabulary List: raising children

Today I’m going to provide a vocabulary list for a topic that I discuss on a daily basis on Japanese: child upbringing. I’ll be focusing on words that are useful for babies  through toddlers (roughly ages 0-4), but some of the terms can be used for any age.

  • 子育て (kosodate): child upbringing
  • 育てる (sodateru): to raise (a child, plant, etc.) [transitive]
  • 育つ (sodatsu): to grow up (a child, plant, etc.) [intransitive]
  • 面倒を見る (mendou wo miru): to watch or take care of (a child, etc.)
  • すくすく (suku suku): growing up healthy (ex: すくすく育ってる)
  • のびのび (nobi nobi): similar meaning to “suku suku”
  • 成長する (seichou suru): to grow (mentally, physically, etc.)
  • イヤイヤ期 (iya iya ki): a period where children want to rebel and don’t listen to what their parents say (often used for 2-3 year olds)
  • 魔の2歳 (ma no ni sai): a period where children are very hard to deal with, similar to “iya iya ki”
  • ~児 (~ji): suffix for children (i.e.: 2歳児 = “2 year old child”)
  • 反抗期 (hankouki): rebellious age (usually used for older kids, like teenagers)
  • 反抗する(hankou suru): to rebel, resist
  • お漏らし (omorashi): bed wetting
  • おむつ (omutsu): diaper
  • おむつ がぱんぱん(omutsu ga pan pan): diaper is full (=dirty)
  • おしゃぶり (oshaburi): pacifier [not to be confused with “oshaberi”)
  • 言うことをきく (iu koto wo kiku): to listen/follow what is said
  • あばれる (abareru): to go crazy (jump around, etc.)
  • 野放し (nobanashi): the practice of letting a child by her/himself without interfering too much
  • 叱る (shikaru): to scold, or reprimand
  • 怒鳴る (donaru): to yell
  • 読み聞かせする (yomikikase suru): to read a book out loud (to a child)
  • 絵本 (ehon): picture book
  • おもちゃ (omocha): toy
  • 寝かしつける (nekashitsukeru): to put a child to bed
  • 寝かす (nekasu): similar to “nekashitsukeru”.
  • いやがる (iyagaru): to act/look like you dislike something
  • 喜ぶ (yorokobu): to enjoy or appreciate something
  • 乱暴する (ranbou suru): to act violently
  • 優しくする (yasashiku suru): to be nice to something or someone
  • 仲良くする (nakayoku suru): to be get along with friends
  • 公園 (kouen): (nature) park  (usually has swings and a slide, etc.)
  • うんち・うんこ (unchi / unko): poo
  • おしっこ (oshikko): pee
  • 抱っこする (dakko suru): to hug
  • シュウシュウする: (shuu shuu suru): to make a shushing sound (i.e. to try and quiet a baby)
  • ぐっすり眠る (gussuri nemuru): to sleep soundly
  • おんぶ (onbu): carrying someone (usually a child) on your back, with their arms around your neck or shoulders
  • 肩車 (kataguruma): carrying someone on your shoulders, with their legs around your neck
  • はいはいする (haihai suru): crawl on all fours
  • 四つん這いする (yotsunbai suru): similar to “haihai suru”
  • 友達 (tomodachi): “friend”, but can also be used to refer to young people whom you don’t know or haven’t met before
  • 拗ねる(suneru): to pout
  • ぐずる (guzuru): to fret or complain about something
  • 歯ぐずり (haguzuri): teething (complaining due to pain and itching as a result of baby teeth coming in)
  • 首がすわる (kubi ga suwaru): refers to the act or stage of development when a baby can support his or her own neck and move it freely (literally: “The neck sits”).
  • 遊ぶ (asobu): to play
  • 喋る (shaberu): to talk
  • 泣き止む (nakiyamu): to stop crying
  • ひゃっくり (hakkuri): hickups
  • げっぷ (geppu): burp
  • 食べさせる (tabesaseru): to feed (a baby, etc.)
  • 歯を磨かせる (ha wo migakaseru): to brush someone’s teeth
  • 母乳 (bo’nyuu): breast milk
  • 授乳 (ju’nyuu): breast feed
  • 卒乳 (sotsunyuu): to stop breast feeding (permanently)
  • おむつはずれ (omutsuhazure): to stop using diapers (permanently)
  • 予防接種 (yobou sesshu): vaccine
  • 昼寝 (hirune): nap
  • お熱 (onetsu): fever (can be used without the “お”)
  • 体温計 (taionkei): thermometer
  • 風邪をひく(kaze wo hiku): to catch a cold
  • 薬 (kusuri): medicine
  • 〜ごっこ (~gokko): pretend play (ex: お医者さんごっこ = “play doctor”)
  • 割礼(katsurei): circumcision

“Baby talk” words (not recommended to use use but just for reference)

  • あんよ (anyo): the leg or the act of walking
  • ねんねする (nen’ne suru): to sleep
  • めめ (me me): eye(s)
  • てて(te te): hand(s)
  • イタイイタイする (itai itai suru): to hurt or get hurt

Japanese word nuances: 美味しい (oishii) vs. 美味い (umai) used to describe food

I’m always amazed at the differences in nuances between words that seem so similar at first glance. Oftentimes these subtleties are not described in a dictionary anywhere, and the only way to really get them is to ask a native, or spend many years of your life immersed in that culture hoping you can acquire the linguistic sensibility of a native.

In today’s post I’d like to talk about two words, which both are typically used to be describe good-tasting food. They are おいしい (oishii) and うまい (umai).

The former of these, “oishii”, is typically taught in textbooks as a standard way to say food tastes good, which would roughly parallel with English “This is great” or “This tastes good”. It can also be used to express a good-sounding offer, 美味しい話” (oishii hanashi).

“umai” fundamentally means someone is good or skillful at something, as in the expression “口が美味い” (kuchi ga umai), which means something like a smooth talker or someone who is good at swaying others. It is somewhat similar to 上手 (jouzu) for this usage. However, it can also be used to mean “tasty” in a way similar to “oishii”.

I remember a long time ago when I first started studying Japanese, a good friend of mine had told me a story where he was corrected by a Japanese person who said he should not use “umai” in a certain situation. I don’t remember the exact details, but I think he said something about how it was less polite than “oishii”.

I brought up this topic with a Japanese person today, and she confirmed that “umai” is definitely less polite. She used the following words to describe it:

  • 下品 (gehin): crude
  • 下町 (shitamachi): downtown (in this case, sort of the opposite of culturally refined)
  • 砕けた (kudaketa): slang (literally “broken”)

She recounted a story where she saw that word used in a children’s book, and how that somehow felt inappropriate, since it be unusual for a child to use this word. However, for older males she said she felt it would be perfectly normal.

So there does seem to be a significant difference between these words, although when exactly is safe to use “umai” is a bit unclear. Personally I try to keep to using more “oishii”, though if the mood strikes me I will throw in “umai” once in a while. At minimum, you may want to consider at least using “oishii” whenever you are speaking with polite Japanese (ie. desu/masu forms).

Even if I were to interview 100 Japanese people and get a good consensus on these two words, I’d bet that would change in the next decade or so, since Japanese seems to be evolving at a pretty fast pace these days.

Note: In the title I wrote these words in Kanji, but in practical use I think the their hiragana forms are more common.

 

Foreign language trick: use misunderstandings as a hint to refine your speech

Once you get to the point in your foreign language studies where you are able to start having frequent conversations, you’ll probably start to notice times where the person you are speaking with has difficulty understanding what you are saying.

Rather than say “I don’t understand you”, they may be more indirect and try and play along, in which case you can try and pick up on when their responses don’t seem to quite match what you expect. Or you may not discover this until later, when that person says “Oh, I thought you meant ….”, for example when there was some misunderstanding about an agreement or plan made.

Assuming you are talking with a native speaker of that language, these sorts of things usually indicate that you have made mistakes in your speech, either in terms of incorrect grammar or misuse of certain words.

If you try to actively spot these miscommunications and trace them to their source, often you’ll discover something that can improve your communication ability in that language.

You can use this technique even when conveying your message properly took longer time than expected, in terms of the amount of back-and-forth. In such cases, you can think about what you could have said to communicate more efficiently, with less words. This is especially relevant in Japanese, since words are often omitted more than in English, although if you omit a critical word you can negatively impact the listener’s chance to understand your point.

If you are on good terms with the person you were speaking with, you can ask them whether you misused a certain word or used awkward grammar. If not, you can try to remember the conversation and ask a teacher or friend later about what might have gone wrong.

 

Book Review: “Manabeshima Island Japan” by Florent Chavouet

Tuttle Publishing offered me the opportunity to provide an early review of Florent Chavouet’s travel guide, titled “Manabeshima Island Japan”, and I jumped at the chance. After all, the book wasn’t coming out until Dec 1, 2015, and it’s funny subtitle of “One island, two months, one minicar, sixty crabs, eight bites, and fifty shots of shochu” had me very curious about what this book had to offer.

From very early on, it was clear this book was more of a personal travel journal than a typical travel guide. Instead of “this place is great to eat at” and “this is a must-see tourist site”, the book chronicles Florent’s experiences on this little island in Okayama prefecture (岡山県) which at present has population of around 300.

He reports on places he saw (a middle school), things he did (went fishing), things he ate (ongiri), random objects he found (broken bowl), and who he met. In particular, this descriptions of people and their personalities shows a keen observational sense.

The descriptions of his experiences are very well written, with a jolly tongue-in-cheek attitude that make you smile as you read them. This book was originally released in French in 2010, and I have to give a round of applause for the excellent translation job done. I know barely a word of French but this is is one of the most natural translations I’ve seen in some time.

But I think it’s time I reveal the most amazing thing about this book – the artwork. Though there is a good amount of text on most pages, I feel that the text is actually supporting the beautiful hand-drawn pictures rather than the other way around. Florent’s ability to make photographically-detailed sketches is amazing, especially considering how fast he must do them (there is over 100 pages in the book) and how some of them must have been done from memory. The various people he has met are also illustrated skillfully, with good attention to what makes each of them unique, although they are feel a little more cartoony than the rest of the art. My favorite are the handful of building and city scene sketches. You can see a few of the illustrations from the original French edition here, though the quality of the images on that site isn’t that great.

While the book does not focus on trying to teach Japanese, there is enough of it strewn throughout, plus a page at the end which gives a list of vocabulary. If you are new to Japanese you may pick up a few words this way, and if you are more experienced in the language you’ll get some satisfaction when you pick up on the words he doesn’t directly explain, like the phrase “kso” that appears a few times. (This means くそ, literally “shit” but also used as a curse word just like it is in English).

I admit I was a little disappointed when I discovered Florent had two interpreters with him on the trip, though given that I think he did a pretty good job on the Japanese phrases. I did spot a few mistakes, like the number “4” written as “chi” several times, though I can’t say if this one specifically was more of a translation error.

What I love about this book, besides the great observation and descriptive abilities of the writer, is that it really makes me feel like I am traveling to Manabeshima Island. Florent has done a superb job at selecting interesting subject matter such that a sense of everyday life oozes from many of the scenes in this book. For example, the “morning schedule” section (pg. 30) that describes a few of the inhabitants daily schedules around a port. There is also much space dedicated to animals, whether it be the territories of various cat gangs or crabs bickering.

For those interested in Japan or traveling off the beaten path, this book is a rare and unique perspective on travel that is sure to delight you. You can get it an the usual places: on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The author also wrote “Tokyo On Foot”, and though I haven’t read it myself, it has received much praise so may be worth checking out as well. The quality of the pictures seemed a bit lower, which is good since it means Florent is improving his style as he goes. If so, I can’t wait for his next work!

Japanese Read & Answer: #1 [Level 1]

As I recently posted about, I’m starting a new series where I give a dialog in Japanese followed by one or more questions to test your understanding. This is the first post of that series, and is Level 1, which is the easiest level and targets those who have only studied Japanese a few months to a year or so.

Since I’ve given a list of all Kanji and their readings used (below the answer choices), you only need to be able to read hiragana and katakana for this exercise.

Passage

お父さんはスイカが好きです。お母さんは野菜が嫌いで、バナナが好きです。妹は甘いものが大好きです。

Question

Who likes sweet things?

Answers

a) お父さん

b) 妹

b) お母さん

d) 猫

Kanji readings and meanings

お父さん:おとうさん (father)

お母さん:おかあさん (mother)

好き:すき (like)

大好き:だいすき (like very much)

野菜:やさい (vegetables)

嫌い:きらい (dislike)

妹:いもうと (little sister)

甘い:あまい (sweet)

 

 

Correct answer

b) 妹 (imouto = younger sister)

Explanation

The last sentence says “妹は甘いものが大好きです” which means “My younger sister likes sweet things very much”.

By the way, the word 甘党 (amatou) means “tweet tooth”, or someone who likes sweet things.

 

Praying (strong wishes) in Japanese

In Japanese, when you want to express that you wish for something, you can use the following pattern:

  • Noun or Na-adjective + だといい
  • Verb (in dictionary form or potential form) + といい

For example,

  • 優しい人だといいね。 [Yasashii hito da to ii ne]
  • I hope he/she is nice person.
  • みつかるといい [Mitsukaru to ii]
  • I hope you find it.  (literally: I hope it is found)
  • 来年、日本に行けたらいいね。 [rainen, nihon ni iketara ii ne]  (potential form)
  • Next year, I hope we will be able to go to Japan.

You can also use the [dattara ii] or [~tara ii] with no change in meaning.

  • みつかったらいいね。[mitsukattara ii ne]
  • I hope you find it.

However, if you want to express a strong desire for something to happen, you can use the following form.

  • どうか + ~Verb in polite form (~ます or ~ません) + ように + Some form of 祈る

For example,

  • どうか試験を合格しますようにお祈りします。[douka shiken wo goukaku shimasu you ni oinori shimasu]
  • I pray that I pass the test.

祈る(inoru) here means to pray or to wish, and an extra polite form of this (お祈りします) is used here.

どうか (douka)  here means “please”, though it can have other meanings including “somehow”.

Both the 祈る and どうか parts can be omitted, like this:

  • 試験を合格しますように
  • I hope that I pass the test.

If you want to just wish something to “be” you should use である (dearu) rather than です (desu). These words essentially mean the same thing but “dearu” is more formal and thus more appropriate here.

  • 正解でありますように 「seikai dearimasu youni]
  • I hope it is the right answer.

These expressions can be used in a religious context, as if praying to God, however using them doesn’t imply you believe in any specific religion.

You can also use the potential form (ex: 合格できますように), though from what I have seen it is used less frequently than the dictionary form in this construction.

By the way, in a more general sense “(の)ように” is used to mean “as if” or “like” (ex: 風邪のように => “like the wind”). It is commonly used when you want to show a desired outcome you are targeting, in the sense of “such that ~” or “so that ~”. For example,

  • 試験を合格するように頑張ります。
  • I will try hard so that I can pass the test.

Notice that for this meaning, the non-polite form of the verb (合格する) is used instead of the ~masu form.

This ”〜のように祈る” pattern discussed above is really just a specific case of this,  meaning “Pray such that ~”.

 

Lost in translation: things don’t always match up at the word level

The other day I was reading some posts about Japanese on Twitter and came across a post that had a simple phrase written in English, and then translated into Japanese. Here is what it said:

  • Hey, did you lose weight?
  • あれ?やせた? [Are? Yaseta?]

At first, this looks like a pretty innocuous phrase. Both the English and Japanese versions are natural and completely make sense.

However, as I looked at this closer, one thing caught my eye – the fact that the words “Hey” and “あれ” didn’t exactly match up. “Hey” is used more when trying to get someone’s attention, and “あれ” is used more as a phrase said to oneself when you realize something weird is going on. If I were to translate these words into the other language here is some things I would consider:

  • Hey  => おい, ねえ
  • あれ? => Huh? What? Hmm?

I became curious about whether this really was a good translation, so I asked a Japanese person as well as posted a question on Oshiete Goo.

The overall consensus was that the translation was fine, although there were several other valid ways to express this, such as “おや?やせた?” .  They agreed that the meaning of “あれ” wasn’t exactly the same as “Hey”, however the important thing was the overall meaning. To quote the first responder on Oshiete Goo, with my rough translation:

 

結局、相手に対して「痩せたように感じる」「前に比べて痩せたんじゃない?」と伝われば良いのであって、「Hey」のニュアンスにそこまで拘る必要はありません。

Ultimately, all that is needed is to express that that person seems to have lost weight, so there is no need to be concerned that much about the word “Hey”.

 

This was a good exercise and brought me down to earth, reminding me that being particular about every single word in a translation was a waste time. What mattered most was that at the sentence level (or higher) things matched up semantically – the overall meanings and feelings were as close as possible.

Having said that, as someone who thinks alot about the best way to teach Japanese to others, I feel that just looking at these two lines can cause a student to incorrectly that “あれ” equals “Hey” (I talked about this pitfall in a recent post). To avoid that I think it would be nice to give a side note about this to clarify the meaning of “あれ”.

The phrase “itsumo wa” in Japanese (what is the opposite of “always”?)

The Japanese particle “wa” in Japanese (written “は”) is a fundamental part of the language and is used very frequently, although it can difficult for students to learn since there is no direct parallel in English (see my blog post on “wa” and “ga”).

To give a quick summary, this particle is used to establish the topic of a sentence, and sometimes can be thought of in terms of “~ as for”. So “僕は…” would mean “As for me…”. One of the other nuances of this word is that it can imply that the condition that follows applies to the word before “wa”, however there are other cases where this condition doesn’t apply. This is much easier to understand with an example:

  • 映画見たくない。 [eiga ha mitakunai]
  • I don’t want to see a movie.

Here, using the ”は” particle instead of the “を” particle implies that the speaker doesn’t want to see a movie, but he or she may want to watch something else. That doesn’t really translate well to English, though one could say “I don’t want to see a movie, but there is something I do want to see” if you really wanted to emphasize this part of the Japanese sentence.

Usually adding the “wa” particle doesn’t change the meaning of the word before it, since ”映画は” still refers to a movie.

However, recently I discovered a case where it does change the meaning. Take a look at the below sentence.

  • いつもTシャツを着てるよ。[itsumo ha T-shatsu wo kiteru yo]

Since “itsumo” means “always”, at face value, “itsumo ha” means that the person speaking always wears a T-shirt, except for when it is ‘not always’. This sounds strange, since the opposite of “always” should be “never”, right?

It turns out that in this case いつも actually means “usually”, so the full meaning of this sentence would be something like:

  • Usually I wear a T-shirt (even though right now I am wearing something else…).

“usually” is actually listed as a definition for “itsumo” in the dictionary, but in everyday conversation this word is used to mean “always” more often than not. But when you have a “wa” after it, you know it is being used to mean “usually”.

 

Using parallel texts to study a foreign language

In a recent post of mine about suggestions for increasing reading speed in a foreign language, a reader commented about how using parallel texts in two languages (your native language and the one you are studying) is another helpful technique.

Surely, using parallel texts is a valuable tool, and it’s pretty easy to do this by purchasing two versions of a novel, one in each language. I’ve used this technique myself a handful of times, but eventually realized that it was not really helping me in the way that I had expected. There are a few things to keep in mind when studying using this method.

One of the fundamental issues I see is that it’s very likely that one of the works was translated by a different person than the author (although I imagine there may be a handful of authors who do their own translations). From what I’ve seen most translators of well-selling novels are people with pretty solid credentials.  They probably have gotten a degree in a related field and have done a great deal of translation before. However, even if we assume the translator is an experienced professional and doesn’t make mistakes, there will be a certain amount of interpretation going on. The translator could talk with the author to clarify some points to make sure things get conveyed properly, but I am not sure to what extent that is done in practice.

One experiment you can try is searching out two versions of the same novel, translated by two different people into the same language. I haven’t tried this personally but I have a feeling you’d be surprised by some of the differences you see. After all translation, like the writing process itself, is part art, part science.

Ultimately, I think the utility you’ll get from studying parallel texts depends on your goals and ability. If you already have a very good grasp of the language’s fundamentals (say, several years of serious study) and are aiming to become a translator, parallel texts can really show you how a pro translator thinks and give you pointers for your own translations. If you can get a book in the same genre or subject matter, even better. Here, the student is studying at a higher level where subtle nuances are more important than nitty-gritty grammar details.

But if you are still at the level where you are frequently looking up meaning of words, and there are many grammar patterns you haven’t seen before, parallel text study may not be the best thing for you. One reason is that the more complex the sentence, the more you will have to work backwards and see how each word ended up in the translated text. Unravelling these puzzles can be a time-consuming process, and I am not sure if it is always worth it.

Another thing about this practice is that it encourages you to think in your native language which is something you generally want to get away from. If someone tells me “分かった” means “I get it”, then I may very well keep that association in my head for some time. Eventually, experience will fill enrich your knowledge of that expression and the English phrase “I get it” will be gradually forgotten, but regardless there is a crutch that has been created. Beginners often have no choice but to look up words in a dictionary frequently, but the faster you can learn to start honing your skill to figure out a meaning of a word or phrase when there is some unknown element(s) to it, the faster you will be to fluency.

In my opinion, good quality translations are at the sentence, or even paragraph level, so if you try to map word-by-word sometimes you will get misled about a word’s meaning. Recently I came across a phrase written in English and translated to Japanese, and even though the resultant sentence captured the same overall meaning, one of the individual words didn’t match up perfectly with the other. So if a student tries to learn individual words this way it can cause misunderstandings which actually slow down your growth.

To be honest, some of my negative feelings towards studying with parallel translations came from the time time I tried to compare the English and Japanese versions of The Quantum Thief, one of my favorite Sci-Fi books in recent history. Even though I really enjoyed both the story and writing style of the original (English), when I tried to read the first chapter of the Japanese version things just felt really awkward. I understood much of the Japanese, but the tone was so different it just caught me off guard. I know that much of this is probably due to my lack of native-level sensibility regarding nuances of Japanese, but the end result was that I just ended up feeling confused and didn’t really learn much concrete from the experience. (Note: I had read the first chapter of the Japanese version from online somewhere. I don’t have the link at the moment, but if you are interested let me know).

I’m a major proponent of immersion language learning, where one puts themselves in an environment that exposes them to as much of that language possible, even if much of it is incomprehensible at first. Overuse of parallel texts feels like the polar opposite of this – it’s like saying you are immersing yourself in a foreign country where all you hear is that country’s language 24×7, but you have a translator you can use at any time to convert to your native language. In some ways it’s like watching a foreign language TV show with subtitles, another practice I generally try to stay away from.

So when all is said and done, I’m not going to say to anyone to completely avoid using parallel texts to improve their understanding of a foreign language. Just be aware of what you can and cannot learn using this method, and think about whether it’s really the most efficient way to achieve your current linguistic goals. If you do choose to use this study technique, try to choose books whose reading level isn’t too difficult, where there is less change of running into complex grammar. Also try referring to the native language text only when you are really confused about a sentence, as opposed to going line-by-line for the whole thing. That way, it’s more like a hint that gets you on the right track so you can re-read the foreign language text and say “oh, that’s what it means”.  Even so, knowing you have the answer key right in front of you makes it harder to really do your best in trying to comprehend what each sentence means.

As an alternative, I recommend finding books out there that contain translators notes, including descriptions of tricky passages. Here is one I read sometime back which was quite educational. These are pretty rare (at least for Japanese), so I would read any you can get your hands one.