When I was at Powell’s picking up used books, many of the ones I bought were books that were translated from English – Murder on the Orient Express, Treasure Island. I’ve resolved to stop buying books I can’t read, but I made an exception for these, as I think I should catch up to that skill level fairly soon, they were cheap, and I’ve already read them and knew that I would enjoy them. That made me wonder: Is it better for extensive readers to read translations of books they already have read in their native language or books whose stories they’re already familiar with, or would they be better served by focusing on books that they’re completely unfamiliar with?

The thing I’ve found to be most useful about familiar material in my own reading is that I can use my prior experience to guess words that I might not otherwise be able to understand, making them easier to remember. Because readers know the overall gist of the story already, they should be more comfortable with the book and should be better able to skip parts that don’t make sense without getting frustrated, allowing them to read at a slightly higher level. If it’s a book they already know they like, that makes it more worth their money than a book they may get bored with halfway through and never pick up again, and a lot of books that have been translated are classics, giving them literary value alongside the language learning and entertainment values.

However, familiar material may permit readers to rely too much on their prior knowledge, paying less attention to confusing parts that they may have been able to untangle if they were forced to do so, and perhaps even getting bored with a plot they already know, sapping them of the drive to keep going and see how it ends. Readers may also be able to artificially inflate their reading level because of their familiarity with the text, but then feel frustrated by the words they still don’t know and become discouraged by the contrast between their native language reading abilities and their target language abilities. They may find it easier to stick to translations and not branch out to many new things, and in the case of books that have originally been translated from another language, there may be idioms or interesting bits of information about the target culture that they could miss out on.

In the pursuit of fluency I would think all reading has value, but I wonder about the comparative experiences of two hypothetical extensive readers who read at about level 5 or 6: one who makes her way through the entire Harry Potter series in Japanese (a popular starting point for Japanese language learners, it seems), and one who reads an equivalent amount of words written by Japanese authors. Would there be differences in their motivation, comprehension and overall gain in skill?

In my case, I’d rather read something I haven’t read before, and I think I get more out of it that way… but I do rather want to see how Hercule Poirot sounds in Japanese. And, of course, I studied Japanese literature in college, and one of the things that most motivates me is the prospect of reading the original versions of many of the Japanese books that I’ve already read in English. (That may or may not count; I’ve forgotten the details of most everything but the Tale of Genji!)


2 Responses to Translated Books and the Extensive Reader

  1. Tsubasa says:

    Well, this is one of the questions I’ve been wondering since I had started Tadoku. Acually, when you read the books you’ve read already in your native language, it must be easier to read and you may have room to think well about the new vocaburaly or
    gramatical things. It must be an important point in reading books.

    However, when you read totally new stories for you, you may spend
    much of concentration on it, because you just want to know what will happen next. You just try to keep concentration way more on the story itself. In that case, sometime I notice that my mind gets full of English because Japanese wouldn’t be of any help to me and there’s no room which any Japanese can get into.

    And I sometimes feel like that this sort of consentration would form up some kind of wonderous power which can get over the problems of vocaburaly or grammers easily. It’s very hard to explain with words, but I feel like such concentration has a great power even to make up a new part in the brain, to think in English for me.

    Well, anyways, I think there’s no proper answer to this question because there’s a good point on each of the ways.

    Sorry if this comment just made you confused….^^;)
    Maybe, all what I can say for sure is, “Let’s keep reading lots of and many kinds of stories with fun!”. ^^

  2. Liana says:

    I’m happy I’m not the only person who’s wondered about this ^^ Your comment isn’t confusing at all! I really like the way you put it — that your mind gets full of English if you’re reading an unknown book. I find that to be true too ^^ In any case, there’s room in the world for all kinds of stories, but I just think this would be the kind of thing that would be interesting to study.