For me personally, the most frustrating part of translating Japanese into English is looking up the definitions of words I don’t know.
Reading Japanese on its own is a challenging but mostly pleasurable activity. I generally sokudoku (速読, skim/speed-read) and try to understand everything from bunmyaku (文脈, context), looking up words only when I would be missing something fundamental if I didn’t know what they meant.
Writing in English is also enjoyable. It’s fun to put words on the page, even if it isn’t always easy. Looking up a definition when translating forces me away from either of these activities and distracts me from the real matter at hand: production of a new text in a target language.
But looking up definitions is a critical part of translation. You can’t just gloss over something if you don’t understand it. You must seek and destroy any misunderstandings on your part so that you have a decent shitagaki (下書き, rough draft), and you should consider checking against a second dictionary when you go through a process of shūsei (修正, revision) to refine the work you’ve already done.
Choose your dictionary wisely. For the shitagaki, you should be fine with a denshi jisho (電子辞書, electronic dictionary) or an onrain jisho (オンライン 辞書, online dictionary).
WWWJDIC (wwwjdic.com) is a free dictionary that Australian academic Jim Breen put together, and it has become the basis for many other dictionaries and applications, such as Rikai.com and Jisho.org. With over 170,000 entries, it will have just about everything you need, but sometimes the entries can seem a little sparse, and there aren’t many reibun (例文, example sentences), which are always useful to judge context.
Eijiroo (www.alc.co.jp) is a pun on the characters for English (英), dictionary (辞) and the Japanese male name Eijiro. Their Web dictionary is a smorgasbord of reibun and definitions, some of which err on the side of slang, often delighting the expat community. For example, the entry for nyūbō (乳房, breasts) has no fewer than 51 English options, including the ever-so-mature “funbags.” And kyūryōbi (給料日, pay day) lists “when the eagle flies” (an American tribute to governmental pay), among other more colorful renditions.
If either of these fail you, then it’s time to go to the source: Online Japanese dictionaries won’t give you an English solution, but they might give you insight into the meaning of a word or phrase. Kotobank.jp is a good source with a simple interface.
For the shūsei process, however, it’s best to enlist a more rigorous J-E dictionary: It’s time to bow down to the “Green Goddess.”
The Kenkyūsha Shin Wa-Ei Daijiten (研究社新和英大辞典, Kenkyusha New Japanese-English Dictionary) is a legendary tome that earned the adana (あだ名, nickname) of the “Green Goddess” because of the weighty dictionary’s beautiful hunter-green dust jacket. I busted out my copy recently when I was revising my translations for the Japanese Literature Publishing Project’s second Translation Competition.
The JLPP is a semi-governmental organization launched in 2002 by the Agency for Cultural Affairs to help promote awareness of Japanese literature by providing quality translations of selected texts to publishers; in short, they do the legwork to make the challenging prospect of publishing a translation a little bit easier (and more affordable).
The contest involved translating one fiction short story and one nonfiction essay. I selected “Namida Uri” (涙売り, “Seller of Tears”) by Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子, Yoko Ogawa) and “Shōwa ga Hakken Shita Mono” (昭和が発見したもの, “Showa’s Discoveries”) by Maruya Sai’ichi (丸谷才一, Saiichi Maruya).
Ogawa is contemporary, and Maruya is modern but uses prewar kanazukai (仮名遣い, kana orthography) in his essay and an older vocabulary set that made the Green Goddess especially helpful.
For example, Maruya uses the word omoshiroi (面白い, interesting/funny) when referring to the ways in which Japan and China address love in their respective literatures. Readers are likely familiar with this word in context of everyday life: An exclamatory “Omoshiroi!” is a natural response when you see something funny or entertaining. But it feels slightly different in this context.
WWWJDIC offers “interesting” and “amusing,” but the Green Goddess devotes half a page (in very small font) to examples, including “pleasant,” which fits better in the context of this essay, especially when taking into account Maruya’s assertion that the plot of “The Tale of Genji” was rinrijō omoshirokunai (倫理上おもしろくない) because it addressed the taboo subject of sleeping with the Emperor’s consort. A literal translation of “ethically uninteresting” doesn’t quite make sense. I ended up going with “disagreeable in terms of ethics,” taking “disagreeable” from the Goddess.
In reference to the same topic, Maruya also describes the plot using the phrase hijō ni guai ga warui (非常に具合が悪い). Many may recognize guai ga warui as a way to say “I don’t feel well,” a very useful phrase when calling in sick. Eijiroo even offers “feel like death warmed up” as one option.
Once again the Green Goddess came to the rescue. It provides five different definitions for guai: condition, health, convenience, decency/propriety, and manner/fashion. I ended up with the translation “extremely indecent,” which works well with Maruya’s claim that Confucianists “shamed” The Tale of Genji into obscurity before the Showa period.
The fifth edition of the Green Goddess was released in 2003, which means that (as of the time of writing) used copies of the fourth edition can be had for as little as ¥263 (with an additional ¥257 for domestic shipping) on Amazon Japan! This is an absolute steal. Note that the fourth edition uses rōmaji-midashi (ローマ字見出し, romaji listings) whereas the fifth edition switched to kana-midashi (かな見出し, kana listings).
My best advice for translators is to consider looking up definitions as a sort of takarasagashi (宝探し, treasure hunt). If you make an effort to enjoy the hunt itself and consider it part of the translation process, it will be much more enjoyable, especially when you are looking through a tome as great as the Green Goddess.