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Someone on a Japanese learners' forum I frequent posted a question asking someone to help him translate the following:

どうしても先に進むつもりなのね・・・ だったら・・・

I translated the bit 「先に」 as 「せんに」, but another commenter (who I think has more expertise) translated it as 「さきに」. We both ended up with similar meanings (I suggested "into the future" whereas he simply said "forward").

But my question is, given that both 先{せん} and 先{さき} have similar meanings, how can I tell whether I'm supposed to read it as せん or さき? Are both acceptable?

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先に in your example is definitely read as 「さきに」.

There are two reasons we couldn't pronounce it 「せんに」.

  1. [先]{せん} is almost obsolete as an independent word, merely remains inside a few compounds (ex. [先立って]{せんだって} "the other day, in advance", [先手]{せんて} "being the player that moves first, forstallment").
  2. [先]{せん} only has a meaning as "beforehand", but not "future" or "forward".

By the way, 先に進む could have two interpretations, "to go ahead (towards something comes next)" if you take 先 as an object, or "to go ahead first", as an adverb. I guess the first one should fit the case.

cf. the Japanese-Japanese dictionary entry for [先]{さき} and [先]{せん}

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    Odd; guess I should stop trusting my JP-EN dictionary so much. It gives せん also a meaning of "future". Thanks!
    – Cat
    Nov 29, 2014 at 19:11
  • @Eric Hmm... Maybe your dictionary lumps on-yomi and kun-yomi together, or you're looking at raw kanji definition (manifested by on-yomi). If it's the latter case, 先 certainly has somewhat "future" meaning as in 先進的 ("cutting-edge, futuristic"), but are impossible to be used standalone, since single on-yomi kanji in Japanese is but a word component as much as neither word "helic" nor "pter" exists but helicopter does in English. Even when some of them happen to do, their meaning could be changed or limited, as like "ex-" vs "your ex" in English. Nov 30, 2014 at 8:32
  • Oddly it's not actually a kanji definition; it shows an example sentence even, and defines it as a noun: i.imgur.com/wEp0dND.png
    – Cat
    Nov 30, 2014 at 17:48
  • @Eric The program you're using is attempting to match up definitions from EDICT with examples from the Tanaka Corpus, but it's not doing so successfully.
    – user1478
    Dec 1, 2014 at 11:00
  • @Eric Yes, that's what I call lumping usages together. It's just listing possible choices but fails to tell "where to use". Dec 1, 2014 at 13:48

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