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Review: Japanese-English Dictionaries

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Review: Japanese-English Dictionaries

W hen buying a Japanese-English dictionary, it is buyer beware. For example, A Japanese and English Dictionary With An English and Japanese Index by J. Hepburn, which is sold in bookstores, is nothing more than a reprint of Hepburn's original 1867 work, and is mainly of historical value. On the other hand, Merriam-Webster's Japanese-English Learner's Dictionary, is full of useful tidbits lacking in many other dictionaries. For example, a note under ‘kana’ (“I wonder if”) says: “Usually used in addressing oneself. Most often used by men; women use ‘ka shira’. ‘Ka naa’ is a variant.” This is obviously something you need to know, and is not found elsewhere. Unfortunately, as of this writing there is no English-Japanese version of this dictionary, and it has a very limited number of words (about 8000 entries).

Nelson The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary, 2nd rev. ed. (showing three words under the character kō 高, high)
Sooner or later, then, you will also need a real dictionary and a character dictionary for looking up Kanji characters. For the latter, there are only a few choices: The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary by A.N. Nelson (ISBN 0-8048-0408-7) and Ntc's New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, edited by J. Halpern (0-8442-8434-3). Although the larger 3rd edition of Nelson has received some mixed reviews, the 2nd edition is generally regarded as excellent. Halpern's dictionary uses an innovative technique for finding characters, in which the reader divides the character in half, counts the strokes in each half, and uses a 3-part composite number (such as 1-4-4) to find the character. For some characters, this is faster than the usual method, but for others, it doesn't work and the reader must look up the character by its radical or pronunciation. Halpern's book is also less efficient in terms of space, using almost twice as many pages as Nelson for a similar number of characters despite using a much smaller typeface, and leaving large areas of white space. Halpern also devotes over 300 pages to repetitive descriptions of how to use the NTC
NTC's New Japanese-English Character Dictionary, showing kō 高, high
dictionary. One great feature of Halpern is that the Chinese pronunciation (in pinyin), and a graphical depiction of the stroke order, are given for each character.

Because English is very popular in Japan, most good Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries are published by Japanese companies. Of these, Kenkyusha , Shogakukan , and Kodansha are the most well known. Kenkyuusha
Kenkyūsha New Japanese-English Dictionary (generally referred to as The Green One)
Kenkyusha publishes Kenkyusha's New English-Japanese Dictionary by Masuda (ISBN 4-7674-1025-8 or 4-7674-2025-3) and 3 versions of its 2928 page Ee-Wa Jiten (ISBN 4-7674-1431-8, 4-7674-1421-0, and 4-7674-1413-X), ranging from 7,600 to 14,000 yen. Kenkyusha's large, green-colored 2025 page, 11,200-yen New Japanese-English Dictionary, at 26 x 18 x 6.6 cm, has about 240,000 words (80,000 entries + 160,000 derivative phrases and expressions), indexed by Romaji, which makes it one of the more complete. However, it is not something you would want to pack in your suitcase.

Update: The 研究社-新英和大辞典 is also available as an iPhone app and there is also an online version. Casio also makes a handheld translator that can be upgraded with Kenkyusha.

Kodansha publishes The Great Japanese Dictionary, a 10-volume, >US$1000 Japanese-only work equivalent in scope to the English Oxford English Dictionary. There is no doubt that this one would be overkill for someone just starting out.

Shogakukan e-j
Shogakukan Progressive English-Japanese Dictionary (2nd ed)
Also highly recommended is the Shogakukan Progressive English-Japanese Dictionary which comes in two volumes (English-Japanese and Japanese-English) (ISBN 4-09-510202-0 and 4-09-510252-7) (US$60, about 2000 pages, 18.5 x 13 x 4.5 cm). In contrast to Kenkyusha's, Shogakukan
Shogakukan Progressive Japanese-English Dictionary (2nd ed)
the Shogakukan J-E dictionary is indexed not by Romaji, but by kana. They have about 70-80,000 entries each. The paper is also slightly thinner than that in Kenkyusha's, and the definitions are briefer, making it more compact. Unfortunately, they are not easy to find in this country (I found a copy at Georgetown University Bookstore in Washington, DC).

Shogakukan also publishes excellent Japanese-Chinese and Chinese-Japanese dictionaries.

Both the Kenkyusha College version and Shogakukan J-E and E-J dictionaries have also been incorporated into small electronic palmtop devices. The one based on the Shogakukan dictionary, for example, is sold in Japan by Sharp for about 35,000 yen. However, while the Japanese-English volumes of the printed versions of these dictionaries are quite useful (words are indexed phonetically by their kana), the English-Japanese versions presume a knowledge of Kanji, and do not actually give the pronunciation of the Japanese definition. The same is true for the electronic versions. A person in the learning phase would therefore have to look up each character in a character dictionary to find out how it is pronounced. Thus, there is a great need for an English-Japanese dictionary that gives the pronunciation of Japanese words. I have been able to find Furigana
Kodansha's furigana English-Japanese Dictionary
only one, Kodansha's Furigana English-Japanese Dictionary (980 pages, ISBN 4-7700-2055-4). It is nicely published, but only has 14,000 entries, and the furigana (small hiragana written above each Kanji) are really, really, really, really small. Another minor problem, common to many dictionaries compiled by non-English speakers, is that the translation of idiomatic English phrases and proverbs is occasionally incorrect. For instance, in Chinese-English dictionaries, the ironic expression “cannon fodder” is invariably mistranslated as “pao hui”, or “cannon ashes.” In the Furigana dictionary, the proverb “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is similarly misunderstood (it is translated as having something to do with one's children traveling in a hot rod). However, this is a minor flaw in a unique and extremely useful book.


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Japanes-English Dictionaries

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

Last updated jan 29 2015

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