Hacking Japanese Part 1: Quick Translation

This is the first in a series of how technology lets me cut through various barriers to understanding and learning Japanese. Today's topic: lightning-fast translation. When you're translating from another language, especially one with no roots in latin, every second you can speed up machine or dictionary translations helps. When I first started studying Japanese five years ago, I had a paper Kanji dictionary, and would copy and paste individual words into a little program called jwpce to translate 'em. I also used rikai.com on occasion, a brute-force online text translator/reading assistant. While reading on a computer was faster than on paper, it was still painfully slow.

Cut to the present day: with a 電子辞書(electronic dictionary) and a nifty little firefox plugin, even someone with barely any Japanese experience can grab the gist of written Japanese in no time. Easier reading makes for more interest, and more interest makes for easier reading- it's a nifty little loop. Hook these two pieces of computer magic up, and Japanese will get a lot more fun.

電子辞書 (denshi jisho): The electronic dictionaries you want are made in Japan for Japanese people, but don't despair- they're easily found through google, ebay, or at your local Japanese bookstore. Casio, Sharp, and Canon are the brands to look for. You can easily pay upwards of $500 for a talking, colorful, e-book-reading, brimming-with-useless-features machine, but perfectly usable ones exist for $200-$300. There are only a few features that are worth basing your decision on:Wordtankpro<em>2028</em>3342975

-Handwriting recognition. This is just ridiculous. For a westerner, looking up Kanji by stroke order or radical (the little sub-character things, like the 本 in 体) takes forever. Handwriting recognition is what it sounds like- you draw the Kanji on the screen, and it figures out what the heck it is.

-Jump. Basically, the ability to jump to an English translation of any word or character on the screen (such as in a Japanese definition) at any time. Dictionaries do this differently (Canons let you touch the word with a stylus; my Sharp makes you use arrow keys to select it), so you may want to read up or give them a try before you buy. Don't worry if you can't, though- as long as the feature's there, you'll be fine.

and a distant third,

-Backlight. This doesn't sound particularly useful, but it makes studying a lot easier on the eyes. Not a deal-breaker, though.

What about size? At this point, all of the dictionaries with handwriting recognition are pretty similar. If you're good enough with Kanji that you can easily look words up by stroke or bushu, there are several tiny options out there, but otherwise, there's not much difference.

For a slightly more in-depth overview of denshi jisho, check this article out. It's a pretty good buying guide (what to look for, not what to buy) posted on a Japanese importer's site.



Two devices perform the invaluable handwriting function for less money and in a smaller package than a full-fledged dictionary. If you're a heavy Japanese student, buy the dictionary- it will inevitably have better definitions, and its single-purpose form makes it fast and efficient- but for travelers, beginners, or nights out on the town when you don't want to drag a big thing along, these are great:

iPod Touch/ iPhone:

Not many people (including Japanese) know this, but iPod Touches and iPhones have Japanese handwriting built right in. The trick? Turn on Japanese language support, and the *Chinese *keyboard. Odd, but works great. Input isn't as fast as a dedicated dictionary, but the ability to whip it out any time and figure out a street sign or nametag is wonderful. As far as translation goes, there are a few applications in the US app store, the best so far being one called simply, "Japanese." It's basic, but fine for basic translation. If you make it to Japan, the Japanese app store has a way better selection.

Nintendo DS:

The Nintendo DS runs under $200 (sometimes way under, depending on the model), and its two touchscreens make it great for handwriting recognition. I don't know too much about it, but my basic impression is that the recognition is great, and there are some cool writing-practice games made for it, but that like the ipod, the dictionary isn't the most detailed. Blog post on studying Japanese on the DS here. Note that games produced for the new model will be region-locked (no buying the hardware in the US and the software in Japan), so be careful.


This little firefox plugin took way too long to come about. Basically, turn it on with a hotkey, mouse over anything Japanese (even works on dialog boxes), and it'll pop up a reading and definition (in English, French, Russian, or German, if you'd like!). If it doesn't get the full word, it will give you readings/definitions for the component kanji, letting you grab the basic gist of the compound. Simple, elegant, beautiful. Also comes with an optional toolbar you can use to look up anything you want, and a text output feature that lets you aggregate looked-up words into a study sheet if you so choose (I import mine into a flashcard program).

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Two other tools also bear mention:

The built-in Mac OS dictionary is darned good. I keep it on the dashboard for quick translations, and in the dock to use parallel to a chat window or when I'm making flashcards.

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One easily-overlooked resource, depending on where you are, is Japanese people. I've had nothing but polite, helpful, friendly reactions when asking for help with reading a map, street sign, menu, etc. If you're not quite up on the conversation yet, find a Japanese person, say sumimasen kedo ("excuse me"), and give one of these a go:Interview the Gaijin! 3*

*kono kotoba no yomikata, gozonji desu ka? *

("Do you know how to read this word?")

kono kanji wa yomenai kedo, chotto oshiete moratte mo iin desu ka?

("I can't read this kanji- is there a chance that you could help me?")

The better you can speak, the easier this is; while reading the kanji may be second nature to your average Japanese person, they may not be able to clearly explain its English meaning.

Have you used any of these? Got any other cool tools for Japanese? Let me know. That closes this installment of Hacking Japanese; next time, I'll be covering flashcards (ie, "How the heck do I remember all these random words and squiggly-ass characters?").