Japanese is hard!
Anyone from the Western Hemisphere who has seriously tried to master the Japanese language knows that it is not a trivial task. After studying at two American universities and under two Japanese private tutors, I did what many before me have done – I focused on speaking and listening and let my puny Japanese reading and writing skills atrophy. It would certainly be cool if there were a universal translator (ala Star Trek) – I’d even settle for a Babblefish to stick in my ear (ala Douglas Adams). In the meantime there is Google Translate.
Translation is Hard to Automate
However, the practical usefulness of translation software is still ridiculously limited as anyone who has actually tried to use it will quickly find out. Just try picking a phrase in English at random, translate that phrase into Japanese and then translate it back into English using the same software. Should at least be close, right? OK, since I love the Bible I will choose a simple passage that source. How about an excerpt from Luke 2 (as famously quoted by Linus on “A Charlie Brown Christmas“).
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
The results after a round trip through Google Translate (English–>Japanese–>English):
Because he is a line of David, Joseph, and therefore belongs to the house, the Jewish town of Nazareth in Galilee, the Bethlehem, went to the city of David. He and Mary went to register the child and was hoping that was promised to marry him. While were there, the time is coming to birth a baby, her firstborn child, gave birth to a son.
Semi-humorous Internet History Break…
For those of use who have studied Japanese since the dark ages of the Internet, when Al Gore was laboring to create Arpa-Net and Darpa-Net (insert sarcmark here), the greatest free gift to Japanese scholars was Jim Breen’s EDICT database. Pooling the resources of Australia’s university students who were majoring in the Japanese language, Professor Breen did something incredibly farsighted. He created a free English-Japanese dictionary for foreign students of Japanese and freely made it available to all on the Monash University website.
Building on this great basic research, Todd Rudick built Rikai.com which can be easily used from any webbrowser for either translating Japanese text or (by entering a URL directly) browsing entire Japanese websites. The genius of Rikai.com (rikai means “understanding” in English) is that it is NOT a translator but something akin an automatic popup dictionary. If you know how to speak Japanese but your kanji skills are weak, this is better than a translator. Try it and you will see what I mean. I recommend using some kind of ad-blocker to remove the annoying dating ads that inhabit the sidebars, but the functionality is worth the effort.
RIKAICHAN BROWSING PLUGIN
Rikai.com is cool, but I have saved the best for last. Building on this idea and expanding on Todd’s initial attempt at a browser plugin version of Rikai.com, Jon Zarate has built an excellent plugin for Firefox called Rikaichan. As I write this the current stable revision is 1.07 and 1.08 is in the late beta stages. This is, hands down, the very best tool I have found for browsing Japanese websites. It is fast, slick and elegant. It also has the full power of the original EDICT database plus alpha and makes it all available as tooltip rollovers and hotkeys from your Firefox browser. There is also a work-in-progress Chrome version here called rikaikun.
Do you know any other good tools for web-browsing in Japanese?
OK, just to round out the list here is one more option for those who have decent Japanese skills but need a little help with the kanji. The furigana injector add-on is available for Firefox and Chrome and does just what you would expect from the name.
If you have any other tips for reading Japanese websites, let me know via the forum link below. Share your tips and be blessed!