Industry translators share how they learned Japanese.
Over the past week, I reached out to a number of translators currently translating in either the anime or manga industry. There are ways you can learn Japanese, but some way or another you notice a common thread to a few of them. Or there may not be! That’s why I wanted to know how some anime and manga translators learned Japanese. If you’re studying Japanese or want to learn, this might be a place to start.

How Anime and Manga Translators Learned Japanese

Michelle Tymon (Nagi No Asukara: A Lull in The Sea, Shirobako, Polar Bear Café translator)

It’s my first language. I’m half Japanese, and grew up in Japan when I was little. However, in the process of learning English and moving to the states, I lost a lot of my ability to speak Japanese for a while because we moved to Montana for a few years. So I eventually re-immersed myself into the language by self-study, watching anime, Japanese dramas and variety shows. I also played Japanese video games and read manga and just started naturally translating what I heard/saw in my head.

Athena and Alethea Nibley (UQ Holder, Noragami, Negima, to name a few)

It all started back in 1995. At the time, we were sure we would never learn another language enough that we’d actually be able to effectively communicate, although we were very interested in other languages and we had taken some Spanish and French. Then we discovered Sailor Moon. It was the greatest thing ever, and since it was on right around the time we left for school every day, we recorded it and watched it when we got home. We made it all the way through the Negaverse arc (this was the DIC dub, mind you), and then it skipped ahead to the stuff with Rini. That was a weird jump in continuity, but whatever, as long as we got more Sailor Moon, we were happy. Then, they had turned all of the evil sisters good, and they had yet to defeat Rubeus…and suddenly it went back to the Alan and Ann stuff. When it finished with that, it started all over again, and suddenly there was no more Sailor Moon. It would have been fine if they’d had some sort of a definitive conclusion, but there was clearly more to the story. A friend of ours from middle school was pretty good with this new-fangled internet, and he was able to find out that there was indeed more–a lot more. And we could watch it! …But it was all in Japanese, and subtitles were on the rare side. All this meant we would just have to learn Japanese.

We were rather annoyed to discover that our high school didn’t offer a Japanese language class, and so it was up to us to teach ourselves. First, we got a book on conversational Japanese. It was supposed to come with cassette tapes so we could hear how everything was supposed to sound, but somehow we never got those. Nevertheless, the book was a little helpful as far as teaching grammar. We learned a few things–the basic “how are you?” “thank you” “what time is it?” etc. But the important thing was it had two kana charts in the back for learning how to read the language. Armed with these charts, we could now buy Sailor Moon manga at the local import bookstores, and with a dictionary in one hand and a volume of manga in the other, we were able to sort of maybe almost understand what people were saying sometimes. (We felt pretty good about ourselves when they would start shouting attack names and stuff.)

One year, we had a new next door neighbor from Japan, and our mother arranged for us to meet with her for lessons. I’m not sure how much they helped, but we made a friend, and that was nice.

I think what helped us the most was our obsession with Fushigi Yuugi. We had gotten into a pen pal system for anime fans, and one of our pen pals introduced us to the series. Just watching the anime wasn’t enough, though, and when we discovered that there were novels written with our favorite characters as the heroes, we had to read them! Fortunately, our local Kinokuniya happened to carry them. Unfortunately, novels are a lot harder to read than manga, because manga has the furigana that helps you to read the Chinese kanji characters.

(For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with the Japanese writing system, there are four sets of characters. First, there’s romaji, which is the alphabet we use; it’s mostly only used to help Westerners learn the language, or for artistic purposes. Then there’s hiragana and katakana, which are syllabaries–each character (or letter) represents a syllable. And finally, there’s kanji, which is the ideographs imported from China, each of which represents a word or part of a compound word, and almost all of which have more than one pronunciation. To help with that, little hiragana characters can be printed next to the kanji telling the reader how to pronounce it, and those are called furigana.)

And so we bought a kanji guide. You could look up a kanji based on how many strokes it took to write it, and that’s what we used the most when looking up all the kanji in these Fushigi Yuugi novels. But that’s a lot of information to keep in your head all at once to understand a sentence, so to help us digest it, we would copy a sentence from a novel into a notebook, and then look up all the kanji, then look up non-kanji words in a dictionary, and finally we’d try to put it all together in English in some way that made sense. I kind of shudder to think of them now, because there’s a lot we didn’t know about the language then, and I really wonder how very wrong we were most of the time. I think we did manage to get the gist of the stories, anyway.

Finally, we made it to college where we could take some formal Japanese classes. We had some great teachers, and one especially was very passionate about his native tongue, teaching us all how to diagram sentences and things like that. He wanted to help everyone really understand every aspect of the languages, and in one of his classes he had everyone write an essay and give a presentation that really got into detail. My paper was on the use of “ni” vs. “de” for example. And from there, we made it to a point where we could reasonably translate manga.

Nevertheless, anyone who wants to be good at whatever they do is always trying to learn and improve, and we’re learning more about the language every day. Of course, we’ll never learn everything there is to know, because languages are constantly evolving. But anyway, the important thing, as one of our other college professors taught us, is to learn how to use the tools that will help you continue to learn. These days, our biggest tools are the online dictionary at Weblio, and Google. Not Google Translate–that’s pretty useless. But if a phrase comes up that doesn’t make much sense, even after looking it up (or all its components) in a dictionary, we can Google it to see how people are using it in Japanese.

And…I think that about covers it. If I were to give any advice to someone out there who wants to learn Japanese, it would be to find a way to make it fun, so you’ll have more motivation.

Emily Balistrieri (Overlord, Manga Translation Battle 1st Place Saya Saya to, Junk Head)

I started teaching myself immediately after seeing my first subtitled anime (Slayers). I think I was just about to turn 15. This was 16 years ago, so there weren’t quite as many great web resources, but I sure wasted a lot of paper printing out lessons so I could study between my actual classes. I tried to start a Japanese club at my school, but no teacher would supervise (because, they said, they didn’t know Japanese), so we could never become official.

In college I eventually majored in Japanese. I think my self-study fits and starts in high school got me about half a semester ahead. I’m going to skip a lot of details here and just say I wasn’t satisfied at all with my college education.

After graduation, I went through a period of time where I alternately studied hard and forgot a lot. I got a job at a Japanese grocery store. I tried self-study, language exchange partners, and even some organized classes. I know it’s a cliché, but I really felt like I was banging my head against a wall.

Later, I was lucky enough to get the chance to take revenge on my dissatisfying college experience by spending a year at Waseda doing their intensive Japanese program. I’m not a big drinker, but hanging out in small neighborhood bars really helped my speaking and listening comprehension during that time.

Since then, I’ve been in Tokyo on a succession of work visas, and the thing that has helped me continue learning the most besides pure studying, which I would still ideally do every day, is reading novels. (Granted, I probably say that because the main point of learning Japanese for me is to be able to read and translate.)

I took and passed JLPT N1 last summer after a not insignificant amount of further, mostly self, study. Although I was relieved to have it “out of the way,” I was sort of surprised how insignificant it felt. There is a lot on the test, and there is a lot not on the test. Keep your eyes on your main goal, whatever that may be, and have JLPT be a milestone along the way if you’re into tests or need it to prove proficiency for work.

More tips:

Don’t ONLY major in Japanese. Have some skill or field of specialty as a double major. Even just doubling in English would have helped me so much.

After watching other students struggle, I highly recommend learning at least hiragana and katakana at your own pace before beginning formal instruction.

CHALLENGE YOURSELF. One of my main problems has been holding myself back. I remember looking at a textbook for a class in college and thinking, “This is way too hard for me.” Well, duh, you haven’t studied it yet. If you knew it, there wouldn’t be any point. Take hard classes. Keep moving forward. If you constantly feel like you need to be getting back to basics, then review, BUT ALSO study something new.

The first novel is the hardest. You may look up 1,500 words (okay, the most I’ve looked up for a single book so far is probably 1,406), but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes.

Elina Ishikawa (Tokyo Mew Mew, Hour of The Zombie, The Other Side of Secret translator)

My family moved to Japan so I could learn Japanese and the Japanese culture. (My parents originally came from Japan, though.) Unfortunately, I forgot English by the time I came back to the States. English was part of the curriculum at my grade school in Japan, but it didn’t help me much. In an effort to maintain my Japanese skills, my parents had me continue my Japanese education by taking a mail-in program for a few years and stuck to the rule of speaking Japanese only at home.

Many Japanese parents in the United States send their children to a Japanese school. Some parents are even willing to make a long drive every weekend for it. I didn’t have the option to do this, but I was disciplined enough to handle the mail-in program. My program was offered by Japan Overseas Educational Services and it included Japanese, history, math and science.
At one point in my previous career, I worked for a Japanese company to brush up some Japanese skills when I noticed that it started to suffer from a lack of being in a non-Japanese environment for so long.

Zack Davisson (Kitaro, Showa, Satoshi Kon’s Opus)

I have been studying for a long time, mostly unsuccessfully. I started in Junior High school in…1984, I think…but at the time there was little interest in Japan or Japanese, and the class was canceled due to lack of interest. I kept taking periodical classes in high school and college, but never getting beyond mastering a few basic greetings. I came to realize if I was ever seriously going to learn the language, I would have to go to Japan. So I applied to and joined the JET program, where I worked for 5 years. I did lots of intensive studying then, including getting my Master’s Degree when I was over in Japan (which also formed the background of my book, Yurei: The Japanese Ghost.)

All of that formal study helped for sure, but I credit most of my language acquisition with locating a local bar that I could hang out and chat in. There is no substitute for immersion, and for people willing to just speak to you casually as if you are a human being instead of a student. Language is living, and needs to be learned from real people instead of dry textbooks. Of course, being eventually married to a Japanese person helps too! Although I caution against trying to use your partner as a free language teacher–that never ends well!

And I think it is worth saying; strong Japanese skills are not what makes a good translator. I know many people whose Japanese abilities blow mine away, but they aren’t better translators. Translation is a writing job, first and foremost. Of course you DO have to be fluent in Japanese, but your abilities to express yourself in English are even more important.

Amanda Haley (Baka to Test, Coppellion, Dimension W, yes, also does a podcast)

1. Two years of Japanese in college (that was all my uni offered, but our sensei pushed us really hard, including with kanji from the very beginning, and I think that was a big factor for me not fizzling out when it was time to self-study).
2. During and after that I boosted my kanji/vocab by going through Heisig and using JLPT vocab Anki decks.
3. Made myself start reading webnovels with Rikai (a dictionary plugin) as a crutch, even though there was still a lot that went over my head at first. This is where I started learning real Japanese. It sounds weird, but it was easier for me to do this than read manga (probably because I could keep pushing along quickly with Rikai instead of stopping to look things up, not to mention the sheer density of text). Ultimately what helped me the most was finding an author whose stories and characters legitimately hooked me. For paperbacks, I’d read by the computer and type the words I didn’t know into a Google Doc since Rikai worked with it. When Japan got Kindle, I finally realized that Japanese eBooks were a thing and started binging on manga too…

4. I did spend a couple months at a language school in Japan. It was great for cementing more advanced grammar and for switching from Japanese->English to Japanese->Japanese for looking up definitions/grammar explanations/etc. I wouldn’t say it was indispensable to me for getting to a point where I could read. Speaking Japanese is a different story, though.

I’ve learned a lot by translating, too. But basically, after Genki, I read a whole lot, and then kept reading. I’m a visual learner, and my goal at the beginning was to be able to read, so this was probably the best way for me personally to learn Japanese.

Jenny McKeon (Nichijou, Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan, is also on a podcast with Amanda)

I majored in Japanese and linguistics at UMass Amherst (which has a really good Japanese program). We worked with some of the standard textbooks, like Genki and Tobira, for the main language classes, but there were also a lot of other classes, like classical Japanese, manuscript Japanese (UMass is one of the only places in the states where you can learn that! we called it “quantum squiggles”), literature and translation, etc. I also lived in a dorm with other Japanese majors and students studying abroad from Japan, so we would speak and study Japanese amongst ourselves a lot; we had a weekly conversation class in the basement that was really helpful for speaking skills.

Adrienne Beck (Haikyuu!, Food Wars, The Ancient Magus Bride)

Growing up on the edge of Penn Dutch country didn’t give me much opportunity to learn much about anything Asia, so I didn’t start learning Japanese until I got to college. I went a small liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere, and they required at least two semesters of a foreign language to graduate. I’d already studied (and gotten bored with) French, Spanish and Latin, but Japanese sounded like a challenge, so I took that. I promptly fell in love with it.

My college only offered four semesters of classes in Japanese, so I took all of them and then spent the first semester of my senior year studying abroad at Nanzan University in Nagoya. There I took the one “intensive” language course they offered. And that’s it for my formal education in the Japanese language!

All in all, I think that got me up to about maaaybe a 300-level college course level in the language. The rest I’ve picked up on my own.

Of course, me being me, I couldn’t do it the easy way. I figured the best way to learn Japanese was to go to Japan. I signed up for the JET Programme to teach English over there. I was assigned to a tiny rural town in the boondocks of Miyazaki Prefecture. It was a beautiful place, and the people were wonderful.

…But no one spoke any English. At all. So I spent the next two years for all intents and purposes completely immersed in the Japanese language. Immersion teaches you a lot! While I was there, I took the mail-in language course the JET Programme offered. I also studied various test-prep materials for the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam to pick up grammar, and I would buy kanji workbooks aimed at Japanese elementary school kids to learn and practice kanji. By the time I came back home two years later, I’d taken and passed the N2 level of the Japanese Proficiency Exam with flying colors.

Jennifer Ward (Mangabox titles like Love and Lies, Peephole, Magatsuki, Oregairu)

Well, first I tried self-study when I was in high school. I grew up in a rural area so they didn’t offer much in the way of electives (like Japanese) and the local library’s selection was pretty crap… but I learned the kana and about 100 kanji, and about the content of Japanese 100.

I knew since I was about 15 that I wanted to major in Japanese, so I did. I went to the University of British Columbia in Canada. Their Asian Studies program is very good. Probably the best in North America. Most college Japanese programs in North America won’t get you to fluency, but theirs does.

After two years of study, I was conversational. For my third year, I went on exchange to Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan. The exchange program was all right, but not as rigorous as UBC. I did get the chance to take some real Japanese literature courses aimed at Japanese students, which were very challenging for me. I failed one, haha.

What was good about studying in Japan was that I could buy lots of cheap manga and games from Book-off and study on my own. The first game I played all the way through in Japanese was Tales of Eternia. RPGs are nice because they’re pretty text-heavy, but the language level is only middle-school level, and you get the voice acting along with the text, so even if you can’t read the kanji, you get the audio.

The first manga I got through was Homunculus. I bought it because it looked like it had more pictures than words, haha. I would look up every single word in the manga as I went, and recorded it in my notebook. Then I would drill all the vocab until I was confident and read the manga again.

I remember playing Metal Gear Solid 3 in Japanese. Though I had played it before in English, it was very challenging for me because of all the military vocabulary. I would keep backsaves and watch the cutscenes again and again, 5+ times.

Anyway, I literally played games and read manga every day. I filled up 2-3 notebooks worth of vocab before I switched to digital flashcards. I kind of stopped studying and just read manga all the time at that point. While I was on exchange, I took the JLPT N2 and passed.

After I got back from exchange, less than a year later, I took the N1 and passed.

Fourth year Japanese was a breeze to me after all my extra-curricular reading. Fourth year was also when I started reading visual novels – those were a lot more challenging, and again, it was back to read and drill, read and drill. It took me weeks to finish my first one, Togainu no Chi.

I still add every new word I learn while I work into my Anki flashcards and drill most days. It’s an important tool to keep my vocabulary expanding.

I think it’s totally possible to “learn Japanese through manga,” but realize that it’s not JUST manga. You need to take some classes to get the basic grammar, and then when you read manga, you have to look up everything and drill, drill, drill. Read the same stuff again and again. That’s how you hammer it in your head.

Simona Stanzani (Italian translator of Black Butler, Tiger & Bunny, Steins;Gate the movie)

“…At 14 my dream was to come to Japan and become a cartoonist. And by the age of 17 I started studying Japanese.
…I quit school so I didn’t have a high school diploma, but I knew that Bologna University had a Japanese course. I went there and told the professor that I really wanted to study Japanese. He said “Ok!” So, I studied for two years, but it was an intensive course so I was able to learn a lot compared to the regular uni courses. Back then, there were a lot of kids into animation and Japanese comics which made us a little community: We all knew each other from different towns and there were different groups doing fanzines. Eventually, some of them decided to start a company in Bologna to publish manga with the support of a big publisher. They approached me and, as I had just finished my Japanese course, I started working with them in 1992.”

– Simona Stanzani, in an interview with Pingmag