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A translator’s guide to choosing and reading foreign books to improve your language skills

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Hello, I’m Honoka.

Today I’m going to teach you how to read Western books. The term “Western books” here is not limited to books written in English, but includes all books written in foreign languages.

When you choose a foreign book, don’t choose a picture book or a novel.

This is especially true for books written in languages with complex past tenses, such as Italian, French and Spanish.

Picture books are not recommended, as they often use the difficult tense of the distant past. In addition, the distant past is not used very often in everyday life, so it is better to choose books that use the near past or the half-past, i.e. essays and non-fiction, rather than picture books and novels.

The same is true in English, but in English you don’t need to be so conscious of this.

In Chinese, for example, this advice can be ignored.

Therefore, it is not always possible to say that children’s books will be easy.

Choose books that interest you

If you choose books in areas that you are not interested in, you will not be able to finish them and they will end up on your shelf.

I think one of the reasons why people pile up books is because they don’t find them as interesting as they thought they would be. Reading a foreign book takes a lot more energy than reading a Japanese book. If it’s not interesting, it’s not worth it.

It is best to choose non-fiction books or essays in your favourite field. Be careful not to choose a non-fiction book that is too technical, as you will be frustrated by the technical jargon.

Whether to choose “books for foreigners” or not

As mentioned above, it is not always advisable to choose books for children. So what about choosing books for foreigners?

In general, the advantage is that they are easy to read, with well-coordinated vocabulary and grammar, and expressions that are not too difficult.

However, the language may be far from what native speakers naturally use, and the stories may not be interesting.

In my case, I read such books when I was in high school, but they didn’t suit me.

Should I choose a book translated from another foreign language?

I am currently reading the Italian version of “Night and Fog” (uno psicologo nei lager). As I am interested in psychology, psychiatry, trauma and grief care, I wanted to read this book at least once.

The book is written in German and the translator has translated it into Italian.

In such a case, if a foreigner (not a native speaker) writes the book, it may not be a natural expression of the language. Therefore, when choosing a book for translation, you should pay attention when choosing whether it is translated by a native speaker. The book I have has been translated by an Italian, so the text is very natural in Italian.

From here I will write about how to read a foreign book.

Transcribe the whole text by hand

Just reading isn’t enough to help you concentrate on reading.

In fact, I think the majority of people remember foreign words by writing them down over and over again. At least I did.

For this reason, I recommend that you copy the whole text into a notebook or loose-leaf.

It’s more rewarding as you consume more and more paper in written form!

It also helps you to get a sense of the rhythm of the original text, and writing can have a kind of relaxing effect.

Especially in the case of Chinese and Taiwanese Chinese, where there are many characters (e.g. Chinese characters), it is better to write in order to remember the characters. Writing will also help you to remember the Chinese characters.

The same applies to languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, such as Korean, where writing will help you to get used to the characters, especially if you are a beginner.

For those who find it difficult to write in full

If you don’t feel comfortable writing the whole text, you can type the whole text into a Word file. This will make it easier to machine translate or search for unfamiliar words. However, in the end we recommend that you print it out and write it down.

This is also a good idea if your own handwriting is too messy for you to read back later.

However, please make sure you follow these tips on how to write effectively.

How to write effectively

When using 7mm or thicker ruled lines, after writing the original text on the first line, leave the second line blank. On the second line you should write the Japanese translation, as described below.

The third line should be the original text again.

If you are using 6mm or finer ruled paper, you can leave the third line blank and write the original text on the fourth line to create more space throughout the notebook.

If you are transcribing the whole text into Word, please double the line spacing to allow room for the handwritten Japanese translation when it is printed.

How to translate

If you just want to transcribe the whole text, it is more profitable and time-saving to copy it.

The advantage of handwriting is that it leaves more space.

When writing the translation, you can translate the whole text or just the words you don’t understand. This should be decided according to the difficulty of the book. If you can read the book without translating it without getting stuck, then there is no need to translate the whole text.

Here are a few points to consider:

It is not intended to be shown to anyone, so the handwriting can be as messy as this. The translation is fine as long as it makes sense when you look back at it later. The aim is not to write carefully or translate perfectly. Remember that you are reading for pleasure and to improve your language skills.

We recommend that you use a dictionary as much as possible, but it doesn’t have to be a paper dictionary, just one that suits you. Some dictionaries are now available as applications.

Google Translate is becoming more and more accurate for everyday use, but there are still a few tricks you can use to get a better translation. You can also use the translation software Deepl to get a more accurate translation. I’m a translator, and I don’t underestimate the power of automated translation.

What is important is readability. That is why it is important to distinguish the colours of the source text (blue in this example) and the translation (dark blue in this example). If the colours are too contrasting, for example red and blue, your eyes will get tired, so think about it as you like.

As a side note, I use a fountain pen. I recommend them because they don’t tire your hand and they are economical.

Translate a little bit every day

Language is a living thing. If you don’t use it every day, you will forget the words and grammar. Therefore, instead of translating 20 pages a day and leaving it for a fortnight, we recommend that you translate at least three lines a day.

This is the most important thing I am writing about in this article, the rest is just an added bonus.

My translation work doesn’t take place on weekends, so I try to get as much exposure to English and Italian as possible on weekends.

Studying every day gives me confidence and lowers the bar for me to start working tomorrow.

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