Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Done With Harry Potter

I posted in my old blog long ago about my first attempt to read Harry Potter in Japanese (which of course failed spectacularly); and then, this summer I picked it up again for a new attempt.

And now, after about three and a half months, it's finished. I haven't been reading it all day, every day, of course, or I'd been done earlier. Mostly I've been reading it during my crowded morning commute, and occasionally during lunch break. At about 45 minutes per day it's taken me 60 hours to read it, for an average of about eight minutes per page average. Nowhere near my normal reading speed, but a pretty good improvement on the 15 minutes per page I spent in the beginning.

The reading speed, I've found, alters the whole reading experience. Sometimes an author hits a slow patch or goes off on a tangent for twenty or thirty pages. At my normal speed I'd breeze through it in fifteen-twenty minutes; just a quick breathing space before the plot picks up again. But in Japanese those thirty pages translate into a whole week with no plot advancement at all. An insignificant change of pace in English becomes almost painfully slow and drawn out in Japanese.

The practice has paid off in familiarity, though. I don't feel intimidated by large chunks of Japanese text anymore - I may still not understand it but now that just makes me annoyed, not cowed. And I have a much easier time now scanning a text for specific information even if I don't grasp the details.

What's next? I won't continue with the next Potter book yet. Authors tend to stay with the same vocabulary and expressions over time so I'm better off reading a different author, and preferably something written in Japanese rather than translated. For bed-reading I'm working through "Rubyレシピブック" (Ruby Recipebook), a computer language book with short one or two-page programming tips*. I can read a tip each night and it teaches me some computer-related vocabulary. So, while I have some other non-fiction waiting I want to continue with fiction for my morning commute.

A good option is "Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto, suggested by my teacher. Another would be something by Junko Sakai; Ritsuko enjoys her books a lot and from what I've seen I probably will too. She is an essayist, though, and I'd really prefer to tackle another novel. I suggested "Snow Country" by Yasunari Kawatabata, but my teacher said it's much too difficult and Ritsuko said it's much too boring. So no Nobel-price winning author for me yet.

If anybody has any ideas for book-length Japanese fiction that's not too difficult I'd love to hear about it.

* "Ruby" is the name of a programming language. It's a clean, well-designed language that has gained a lot of positive attention the past few years. It is also the language with the most.. special online programming tutorial ever (special in the sense of "precious" or in the sense of "special olympics" is up to you): Why's (poignant) guide to Ruby. Seriously, even if you have no interest in computers or programs at all, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the first few pages.


  1. My first Japanese novel was Kitchen. The experience was like reading through gauze: I didn't really understand everything, so I'm sure my experience of the book was unique!

    I then read Kuroi Sora by Matsumoto Seicho. That was difficult, but an interesting mystery. Next up was a Akagawa Jiroo mystery novel, which was all short dialog and very easy.

    I kind of quit reading Japanese novels for a while, and when I picked up again, it was all horror: Ring is really good, and I rewarded myself by letting myself watch the movie versions at the end. Chakushin Ari is pretty good, and the movie is really good.

    I'm reading a short Kirino Natsuo novel now. I picked that because her novels translated into English are getting popular, but it's cooler to read one that isn't available yet in English. Another writer I'm thinking about is Miyabe Miyako, who has had some hits in English translation.

    I would never read a book in Japanese translated from English.

    My technique, and the only way I can read a book in a reasonable amount of time, is to not look up any kanji or vocabulary at all. Novels tend to be fairly repetitive, so this works. It doesn't work for newspaper and magazine articles. For manuals, recipes, etc., you look up 20 words or so, and they are used over and over again.

    An alternative technique is to look up words only if they recur often, and you can't figure them out from context after repeated occurances, and they seem to be important.

    If you really try to look up everything you don't know, you'll never finish.

  2. "I would never read a book in Japanese translated from English."

    Actually, I think that helped me quite a bit for a first novel. The described culture, environment and plot was all familiar to me; I didn't have to fight a lot of cultural differences along with the language ones. I bet your "gauzy" experience with Kitchen was in no small part due to that.

    I looked up most things in the Potter book. My goal isn't to get through it fast after all. And since an author will tend to stick with the same vocabulary throughout a book I had to look up less and less as time went by. And, well, it did take over three months, whereas I read the English original in a couple of hours.

    I'm going to follow up on your idea of a mystery novel. I devoured those when younger (and I still like to pick up a P. D. James mystery from time to time). I'll have to check with my teacher on that.


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