Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Today I am going share with you the secret to producing perfect Japanese emails, comments, and even blog entries all without a drop of effort on your part! Sounds to good to be true, you say? Well of course, that’s because it is.
Believe me when I say that I understand the inclination towards using online Japanese-English translators, but trust me, you’re much better off just doing your best on your own. Why? I’m glad you asked (if you didn’t, humor me, please). There are three main reasons:
They Don’t Work
Online translators are generally unable to translate anything properly and will likely make you sound like either a robot or a lunatic. Harsh, but true. I have a theory, actually, that the people who’ve created these programs have done this on purpose, just for kicks. After all, if you don’t know enough Japanese to translate your English text yourself, how will you check whether the translated version sounds correct or not? You can’t. It’s a brilliant and diabolical scheme, no?
To illustrate my point, here’s a snippet of the Japanese folktale, Momotarō 桃太郎:
Now, here’s the “translated” version from Babelfish and Google Translate, respectively:
Momotarou who grew the ogre knows that the ogre of the island has tormented the people, determines ogre suppression. From the parents you receive the millet dumpling in the parting gift, distribute that in the road and attend the dog, the monkey and the pheasant in the servant. That the ogre it fought with the ogre with the island, supplied victory beautifully, it carried back the treasure which the ogre keeps taking from the people, the grandfather returned to the origin of the grandmother, lived happily.
Momotaro growth by the demon Onigashima bedeviling people to know that the determination to rid demon.黍parting gift from the parents to貰いball, it distributed along the way that dogs and monkeys, pheasant subject to the rule. Onigashima battle with a demon and the impressive victory, the Demons will treasure these people to go away from the elderly man to return to his grandmother’s original, and lived happiness.
While you may be able to glean the meaning of the original paragraph out of this jumbled mess, it’s largely incoherent, and it doesn’t sound natural. Can you imagine the confusion that would result if the English versions were translated back into Japanese using the same programs? I shudder at the thought. So, my point here is, unless you want your translated Japanese to sound like that translated English, don’t use online translators. They just don’t work, and will leave your readers, pen pals, teachers, etc scratching their heads in bewilderment.
They’ll Make You Lazy. And Fat.
Well, maybe just lazy. Even if translators did work, you’d still be doing yourself a disservice by using them. Relying too much on those kinds of programs will only serve to set you back in your Japanese studies in the long run—actually learning the language, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes, is so much better than the instant gratification that you’d get by not doing any of the work yourself.
Also, dependence on online translators isn’t really practical in the real world (e.g. actually visiting Japan or answering questions in class). Except, maybe, if you have an iPhone. But still. Don’t do it.
It’s just not nice to mislead the person you’re presenting your translated material to.
If you’re someone who already uses online translators, you’re probably more than a little peeved at me right now, which is understandable. But as much as you may think that my goal was to portray you as a jerk, it wasn’t. I just want to encourage you to stop and discourage others from starting. Sadly, I’ve used online translators a bit in the past (high school, haha), so I’m speaking from experience. For all the aforementioned reasons, it’s just not a good thing to start.
This is what happens when Gojira and King Kong use online translators to chat.
A Possible (If More Time Consuming) Alternative
If I’m going to tell you not to use translators, I should give you some other options for what to do if you need something written in Japanese but don’t know exactly how to do it, right?
First, give it your best try. Write out your sentence, paragraph, whatever, in the best Japanese you can. For now, you can put in English words/phrases where you don’t know the Japanese ones. Then, fill in the gaps—grammar, vocabulary, particles etc by using a dictionary, online Japanese lesson pages, or one of the many Japanese Learning/Translating Communities on LiveJournal (if you use these, you should still do most of the work yourself). Make sure you get rid of the English, too.
I’m going to backtrack a bit to note that I feel it’s best to stick to the grammar points and sentence structures you know already and try to only look up new vocabulary words. It’s really up to you, though. The thing you should definitely try to do, though, is learn (rather than just copy) the vocabulary/grammar that you look up, so that you don’t have to look it up again.
Next, depending on your situation, you could have someone check it. This can be your teacher, penpal, or even one of us (if it’s not more than three lines and doesn’t need to be done quickly) as a last resort. If you’re writing something that seems too trivial to be checked (e.g. a short comment on someone’s blog) or that doesn’t have time to be checked (e.g. an instant message), it’s probably best to post it as-is. A mistake or two is definitely not the end of the world.
This applies to a longer block of text, as well. If you’re self-conscious (try not to be!) about what you’ve written, you could always preface it with something like “Please excuse any mistakes”.
Good luck, you guys!
Thoughts From Koichi
Don’t expect to be able to write in Japanese right away. It’s something that comes with time and practice. Don’t get discouraged when you’re trying to write something in Japanese and it just doesn’t come out right away. That’s because you haven’t studied enough. I know we want everything right away, but it’s really best if you just keep studying. Things will fall into place, I promise! Eventually you’ll be able to write fairly well, just don’t expect it to happen when you first start you Japanese studies. That’s all I’ve got to add, I think.