Do you actively translate or subconsciously understand while reading non textbook stuff in Japanese?

I wasn’t quite sure who to word the question so I’ll try to elaborate here as I’m curious about other peoples experiences with this:

I’ve realised that I find it difficult to read and actively translate when reading non textbook Japanese. I get tired/ bored easily and my mind wanders. That’s not to say I don’t look things up because I do but I just try to understand from context and what I know so far to see what I understand without reading intensively.

When I’m reading in the textbook I’m focusing 100% on every word and trying to understand the sentence and what each word means both within and out-with it. When reading non textbook stuff I’m just trying to figure out what I know and looking up the words I don’t know the meaning or reading of then move on without taking the sentence apart piece by piece. This way I can read for a few hours at a time before taking a short break instead of 20-30 minutes reading before taking a few hours break.

How do you read non textbook stuff and what do you feel is the benefit to you for reading it that way?


Surely understanding subconsciously is the ultimate goal in language learning?
Translation is an unavoidable crutch in the beginning, but the goal is to gradually start thinking in the target language. I remember I was overjoyed when I first realized I could understand whole sentences in Japanese without first breaking them down or translating them. It means progress. :slight_smile:


I started off translating (graded readers)

Started trying to picture the scene (also hard/slow) with translation only for the harder parts

It took a lot of that to read subconsciously (voiced). Harder or badly written — looking at you Light Novel authors! — parts usually require a re-read, etc

Try subconsciously reading sentences or paragraphs and then going back over them (if you need). This is also good for Yomichan, read the sentence then lookup to clarify


You’re right, that is the overall goal. To be able to read without translating means you understand it well enough to read quickly and fluently.
I struggle with output which I think it where the translations come in because if you break it down and translate it, it will help you be able to understand the nuances etc to allow you to replicate it irl.

I remember the first time that happened to me, both in reading and listening. I was like the cosmic cat, mind blown :joy:

I’ve been using DeepL to translate if I don’t understand the sentence or paragraph, google translate or kanji look up to draw it in first (only because it’s been easier for me to use from my phone). Mostly though I’m only looking up individual words because there’s no furigana and I’m unsure of the reading or meaning. Re-reading is definitely helping me internalize the reading/ meaning of the kanji, grammar seems to be my fall down though. I’m picking that ip a lot slower even if I understand it in context/ subconsciously.


The only time I translate is, if I am not following the plot. When my brain goes like “I don’t know what you just read.” Translating requires effort. It requires me to actively look at a sentence and go “Ok, so this is the verb, in this postion, in this form and it relates to this noun and the adjective belongs to this word, so the sentence should mean XYZ” - way too much work.
If you cannot follow the plot without translating everything, you are probably reading something that is still too difficult for you or you don’t trust your own skills.


I don’t translate when I’m reading, I read – so I know what the sentence means, but I’m not thinking of English words when I do. I think translation is a separate (and difficult) skill – on the occasions when I translate a sentence as part of answering somebody’s forum question I don’t generally get something I think is any better than “more or less OK”, even though I understand the meaning perfectly well.

For really tricky sentences I sometimes stop and look at how the parts fit together, but I usually don’t translate in my head then either – I’m still working in/with Japanese, but doing logical analysis of how the bits of the sentence fit together rather than subconscious understanding.


your brain will do that for you. I am not joking. Your brain is really good at picking up nuances and patterns and if you consume enough language you will start using words and phrases and be like “now, where did that come from?” It’s quite funny when that happens. :rofl:


I would say so but it definitely took a while, I basically chose to make the jump from Satori Reader to native books when I found myself able to picture the scene without trying to decode and it’s been a good transition


I can’t do that when I read in English :slight_smile:


Yeah, I just learned about this a couple of years back. Apparently some people do not see a movie/pictures in their head when they read. (aka Aphantasia)
Blew my mind. :flushed:


That all makes sense @pm215
I’m a very analytical/ logical person when it comes to certain things and I try to figure out how things work.

When reading, I can tell someone what’s going on in English but can’t tell them in Japanese which I know is due to my output level being so low (working on this but it’s a struggle atm).

Did you find this just happens naturally for you or did you work on translations first before this started to happen naturally?

English is my native language and I can do that sometimes, other times I just seem to understand without pictures popping up in my head, same with the Japanese I’m understanding. I was blown away when I found out not everyone has that the same way. Like some people hear their own voice in their head when thinking and others don’t.

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Yeah, totally get this.
I usually either see the scene, or can just understand from what I’m reading, and get the gist of the situation but can’t explain it in detail in Japanese even though I can comfortably explain it in English (at least I think I can :joy:). I have checked some understanding of certain sentences and paragraphs but mostly it’s just words I’m checking understanding of.

This is where I’m struggling though I think I just need more practice doing out put methods. :slightly_smiling_face:

I’m not particularly interested in output in Japanese and I haven’t focused on it (or even tried to practice it) at all, but I know from other languages I’ve learnt (even my own, actually), that nothing supports output better than input. The more you hear, the more you read, the more your brain recognizes and stores patterns in the background, and will surprise you by putting them to use when the time comes. This doesn’t happen instantly of course, but no amount of output exercises have helped my output more than reading and listening have done. I believe we learn by imitating, and we imitate best when we do it subconsciously, using knowledge already internalized. Trying output before being ready may be good practice I suppose, but it feels like a struggle for the longest time, at least for me. After enough input though, it’s suddenly almost effortless (again, I have no output experience in Japanese at all, but I believe any language learning works roughly the same way).


I do some automatic translation I think just because I like to think about how I would translate something because I think a lot about writing in English. But my goal is not to have to do this, of course.

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I agree 100% with this. I have maybe seen 1 or 2 people who where stronger in verbal output than in input and those were always extremely communicative people to begin with.
Most people I know, me inlcuded, become passively “fluent” before the output starts catching up. But once it starts catching up it happens surprisingly quickly. (It took me about 8 years for English - and we had many lessons every week that also included output. I went from barely being able to create a sentence to holding a proper conversation within a couple of months. It felt like a switch was flipped in my brain and suddenly it just worked. And I know for a fact that reading was the culprit. :rofl: For French, even after 5 years of 4 hours of lessons per week [including output] plus homework plus studying for tests while I could understand most modern writing and clearly spoken conversations, I could still barely even order food etc. I did not continue with French after graduating, but if I had taken up reading and listening, I am sure it would probably only had taken another couple of years for fluency to kick in.)
Output for me, simply doesn’t work as a learning method.

@CatDQ at the level you seem to be right now, I would not expect you to actively use more than basic desu/masu sentences and maybe the occassional ~te form to connect 2 sentences. I’d already be pleasantly surprised if you used kara or kedo or some other connector for clarifications.

However, if output is all you really care about, than put all your focus on that. If you have a specific reason you want to output early (e.g. you are planning to move to Japan in 3 months), learn specifically for that reason. Think about the conversations you might have and the vocabulary you’ll need and then just practice creating the most basic sentences you possibly can. No fancy grammar, keep it as simple as you can. That’s how you survive early output. :face_holding_back_tears:


:point_up_2: This. Infants and toddlers can understand complicated utterances much much better than they can produce them. It takes years of being exposed to the same lexical chunks hundreds or even thousands of times before they can consistently, correctly, and most importantly rapidly produce them in output.

  1. I read the words on the page out loud in Japanese my head. As I do so, I picture what’s happening as if it were a movie.
  2. If my inner reading voice stumbles or the movie pauses because I’m not understanding something, I reread the sentence once or twice. If there are words or phrases I don’t know or am unsure of, I look them up.
  3. If I’m still struggling, I analyze the sentence starting from the back, focusing on just getting the main point of it, not the nuance or the details.
  4. If I still feel like I’m missing something and it bugs me, I screenshot or take a photo of the sentence, highlight it, and move on. Later on after reading I copy these sentences down into a Google Docs document, highlight each chunk of the sentence and pick it completely apart and take careful note of what exactly stumped me.

I don’t translate into English as I’m reading, I just let the movie play – steps 1 and 2 are identical to my reading process in English, my native language.

The benefit to me, I guess, is that I don’t get bogged down in word-by-word analysis while I’m reading. It kills momentum and takes all the fun out of it. I do the close analysis later, in the Google Docs document.


~て form is one I have issues with :joy: I use a few connectors but only to a basic degree. が (as a connector) and から I’m not too bad with but けど is something I’ve not yet used only because I’m not fully aware of how to use it properly.

Communication is something I struggle with at times, even in English, though that’s probably more an anxiety issue or socialization issue rather than vocabulary and grammar issues. I’m told I’m good at simplifying something I understand well enough but I rarely use complex words and grammar, even in English.

I would like to be able to use Japanese as a second language further down the line (opens up additional job opportunities etc for me) but my main focus just now is understanding written and spoken Japanese and trying to get the basics down for a strong foundation to use when speaking and writing so I can communicate better. It’s the first language I’ve truly learned to a point I can understand enough to be able to pick up the gist/ general idea of what I’m watching or reading as well as follow along enough to understand the basic plot and where it’s going. I took German for 4 years in high school and I only really learned how to insult people or say I’m going to the cinema :rofl: in a shorter space of time I’ve gotten way farther with Japanese through self-study than I ever did in German.

That makes sense, we learn from input as babies and young kids long before we start output and even then we understand way more than we can speak/write.

Might sound like a silly question but do you find that helps you understand the grammar more to pick it apart and analyze it in detail? Or is it just something that you prefer for getting more of an understanding of the text than an understanding of the grammar?

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The former, mostly. By the time I get around to dumping my accumulated sentences into Google Docs I’m usually far past those sentences or even finished with the book they were pulled from, so it’s no longer urgent that I understand the sentence within the context of the story. I want to understand what, precisely, tripped me up so that I can learn from it and not get tripped up by it again in the future. It pinpoints my weaknesses so I can see what I should focus on when formally studying and reviewing.

And it’s not always or even usually grammar that’s the problem, it’s often idiomatic expressions that I’ve just never seen before, differences in cultural expectations and ways of thought, or simple concepts expressed in what seems to me a convoluted, cumbersome, backwards way. Like double negatives. I hate double negatives.

But sometimes going back to those sentences reveals jokes or nuance that I didn’t get the first time, and that’s a real treat. My favorite example is this one:


When I finally understood it, I laughed. I can totally relate to this, as someone who is also learning kanji.


what book is this from? :eyes:

It’s from one of the 華麗なる探偵アリス&ペンギン books – I do not remember which one, it must have been one of the early ones since it was the first time I ever saw 人生 collocated with 送る. I wish those books had more quippy one-liners like that, but, alas. Kids books, you know.

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