Posted by: patenttranslator | October 2, 2010

Thank You Saint Jerome and Andrew Nathaniel Nelson

I am not a religious person. I simply have no use for organized religion. Unlike my neighbors here in the Bible Belt country (I can count 6 churches within a mile from where I live), I don’t go to church and I have to laugh when I flip through TV channels on Sunday morning and see histrionic con artists asking for donations in mega churches. I suppose there are worse kinds of entertainment, although I can’t think of too many.

But there are two men of the cloth who had a major impact on my life. One of them is Saint Jerome (342? – 420) who translated Old and New Testament into Latin (the fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible is known as “Vulgata” (the Vulgate, or the commonly used version), who later became known as the patron saint of translators, librarians and researchers. When I was seventeen, my sister had an admirer who gave me an old liturgical book in Latin which contained among other things parts of Saint Jerome’s translation of New Testament into Latin. I suppose he gave it to me to get on my good side. He knew that I was interested in Latin and he really liked my sister. He also gave me a cigar and showed me how to smoke it. It was actually the only cigar I ever smoked. He was a really cool guy, but they broke up a year later. I was learning Latin at my high school, but unlike the short segments of classical Latin texts and poetry of Roman writers that we were translating at school that were so difficult and often boring, the stories from New Testament sounded so beautiful when I read them in Latin. And since I knew these stories already, they were easy to follow in medieval Latin. When you read the passage about Jesus overturning the tables of money changers, it simply sounds so much better in Latin than in any other language.

A teenager who spends his free time reading the Bible in Latin, although he is not a believer, is by definition crazy. You also have to be crazy to think that you can learn Japanese, but that is what I determined to do when I was in my early twenties. Thirty five years later, I am still working on it. At this point, I am approximately at the stage of your above average beginner, even at the relatively advanced stage of a mad patent translator.

The one thing that I would recommend to every English speaking person who is trying to learn Japanese would be to purchase a copy of  “The Modern Reader’s Japanese English Character Dictionary” by Andrew Nathanial Nelson (known among people who learn Japanese simply as “Nelson”). Andrew Nathaniel Nelson (1893 – 1975) was a Seventh-day Adventist missionary who published his dictionary of Japanese characters and character compounds after retiring from missionary work. I have three copies of the second revised edition from 1974 at home, so that I can find it easily in every room, and I gave another copy to a friend of mine, an American who grew up in Japan and lives now in Japan because he gave me a number of technical dictionaries before he left for Japan. He found it “very helpful”. The dictionary known as “Nelson” was reissued in an updated edition in 1998. I bought the new edition, but I never use it. The new editors modified the method for locating characters, which rendered the book useless to many people, see also this Wikipedia entry. The original organization of characters and words by Nelson in his dictionary is pure genius. The print is large and easy to read, it has been a pleasure and privilege for me to be able to use this dictionary for the last 35 years. I even look up characters when I don’t really have to, for instance when I translate a patent and see a character that I have not seen in a while and can’t recall the reading even though I think I know what it means, or when I want to know the etymology of the character and see in what other compounds words it can be used.

With Nelson’s dictionary, you almost don’t need a Japanese wife. Except maybe if she’s a former chef and a really, really good cook.

So, thank you, Saint Jerome and Saint Nelson (I hope you don’t mind if I call you that) for helping this eternally mad teenager to turn his madness, which was clearly manifested early on as a fascination with totally useless languages, into something positive, namely by helping with the transition from adolescence to becoming a mad patent translator.


  1. Actually, you can use the new Nelson the old way by just ignoring the added char. location method. That’s what I do. The main advantage to the new one is that it has LOTS more kanji than the old one & is thereby more useful. I bought it as soon as it came out & never looked back, altho I don’t use it so much now since I know pretty much enuff kanji to not need it most of the time. I may’ve also been somewhat biased since I knew John Haig. I spent 2 yrs. in grad. school at the UH & actually helped him teach a class in conversational Nihongo.


  2. I mostly look up Kanji that I knew but forgot or can’t remember at the moment. The old Nelson seems to have what I need most of the time, if not, I look it up on the Internet. So I will probably not bother trying to learn the new method.


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