Getting Started as a Translator: Gleanings from Honyaku
On February 1, 1996, the following question was posted
to the Honyaku mailing list from a person in the United
I am trying to get started as a part-time, freelance
translator. I have never translated for money before but I
feel confident in my abilities (at least for J>E). I have
made several inquiries including letters to translation
agencies in my town and trying to register with a couple of
companies I've found on the World Wide Web. So far no reply.
I even spoke to the owner of a translation agency here. When
I told him that I had two years of college Japanese and
lived in Japan for a year, he essentially told me "good
luck" and hung up. It's beginning to look like one of those
"need a job to get experience, but can't get a job without
experience" Catch-22's that everyone hates....
In any case, I do have a couple of specific questions.
First, do you recommend sending samples of my Japanese
writings with my resume? Second, should I go ahead and buy
translation tools such as technical dictionaries and name
dictionaries before I find work? And third, does anyone know
of any translation agency that will give a newcomer a chance
to do freelance work?
The following are excerpts from some of the replies.
I realize that you would prefer to work freelance at
home. But from my own experience, I recommend that you go to
work in somebody's office somewhere as an in-house
translator, preferably where there are more experienced
translators who can help you along. Then, after a couple of
years you can strike out on your own.
I recommend that you go to work in-house for a company as
a translator. It doesn't necessarily need to be in the
translation business. I started out working for a Japanese
automaker, and cut my teeth by interpreting in 8-hour
business meetings in (literally) smoke-filled rooms and
other abominable working conditions. The main reason for my
recommendation, however, is the financial security it
affords. Have you considered that [in the United
States] you will be paying an extra 8% in social
security taxes if you go freelance? I've been freelancing
for many years and maintain pretty good efficiency and
productivity. Still, with taxes and business expenses
(mostly books and computer-related items) I estimate I
actually get to keep about 50 cents of every dollar I earn
Being a freelancer does not mean coming and going at
will, nor accepting work whenever you please. It means
waiting days at a stretch for the phone to ring, pulling
occasional all-nighters to get things done in time, and
sometimes going 7 days straight with only an occasional nod
to wife and family, who will become increasingly irate and
begin to mutter disparagingly about your sanity. I suggest
you work full-time at a language-related job and translate
part-time on nights and weekends until you get established
well enough to go out on your own.
If you insist on going freelance from the start, I
suggest you ask agencies to send you a translation test.
Most of the large agencies test their new translators
anyway. Maybe you can convince them of your translating
capability. You will also need a good fax machine, computer
(with appropriate software) and modem to deliver the goods
on time. You must present yourself as a businessperson, not
a college student looking for a job.
I hope my words do not sound too harsh because that is
not my intention. I just want you to go into this business
with both eyes open and not expecting to turn a profit for
Roger Chriss has written about translation as a
profession, and he offers many pointers for people
considering getting into the profession. His report can be
I would also echo the advice of getting your start by
working in house for a while. That's the path I took myself.
Also, even if your long-term goal is to live and work in
some country other than Japan, you might consider working in
Japan for several years as a translator. I would argue that
when you are getting started in the profession, the enriched
language environment that comes from living in Japan will
make for more rapid progress. Also, many references you will
want to use will be cheaper to buy here.
Translation is a subtle art. I started full of confidence
and quickly realized how little I knew about Japanese (and
English!). That's when you really start to learn. My
wan-pointo advice: Learn to recognize when you don't
know something. The thought, "That's probably right," is
I think this assessment is pretty good:
> It's beginning to look like one of those "need a
> to get experience, but can't get a job without
> experience" Catch-22's that everyone hates...
To a large degree, translation success depends more on
"jitsuryoku" than on qualifications on paper. However, to
get a chance to show off your "jitsuryoku", you need some
kind of qualifications on paper. Two years of college
Japanese certainly doesn't impress anybody that knows
anything about either language learning or translation.
Several people have suggested the option of looking for
an in-house translation job. I think this is probably a good
idea. Depending on what your career goals are, another way
to do it is to find a non-translation-related job and work
on finding translation jobs on the side. This is the path I
took. If your main goal is to be a full-time translator, it
might not be the best path, but it has the advantages of
providing a stable income to support you while you get
started in translation, as well as providing (potentially) a
solid background and depth of experience in some field
(which may then be leveraged for your translation work).
As far as finding translation work, if you have decent
skills, you should be able to leverage the "kone" you have
already developed. You should have a decent relationship
with your college instructors, which should already know
(and hopefully be impressed with) your skill level and
potential. You said you spent a year in Japan -- you should
have people you know from that experience who are similarly
impressed with you. My first non-coursework translation came
as part of a different job (summer internships and part-time
work developing Japanese language instruction software), and
my first freelance work came from people I already knew --
instructors I had taught for, companies I had interviewed
with, friends from school that now run their own
Japan-related businesses, etc.
This mailing list is another good resource. If you are
participating in the list, showing the translators here that
you have good skills and something to contribute, you may be
able to get some work through them.
This is a relatively slow way to get into translation,
and will probably only be possible if you have some other
means of support (like a day job). You need to have some way
to survive while you're building up enough translation
customers to support you.
It also is a difficult path, in some ways. While it takes
away the pressure of having to find enough work to pay the
rent, it also means that your time is very limited, since
you already owe 8+ hours a day to your "real" job. In the
feast-or-famine world of translation, that means that you'll
have to turn down some of the feast that you could otherwise
be profiting from. If you're doing mostly agency work, too,
that can really hamper things, since it probably doesn't
take to many times turning down jobs before they take you
off their list. If you find an agency that's small enough
that they get to know you personally, and if they like your
work, they'll be more forgiving.
> In any case, I do have a couple of specific
> do you recommend sending samples of my Japanese
> writings with my resume?
Only if they're good. :) I never have, but then I haven't
done much "cold calling", that is, calling potential clients
without an introduction or specific lead, either.
> Second, should I go ahead and buy translation tools
> as technical dictionaries and name dictionaries before
> find work?
When I did my first job, I didn't even have Nelson's
(though I did have a Rose-Innes... long story). However, I
did have easy access to a well-stocked university library.
It wouldn't hurt to get started on a core library, if you're
really serious about translation. Depending on what field
you want to work in, you can probably get started with just
three or four good dictionaries (probably the big
Kenkyusha's J-E, a good kan-wa, a good English dictionary,
and one or two technical dictionaries for whatever your
field of specialty is), and then add more as you get some
> And third, does anyone know of any translation
> will give a newcomer a chance to do freelance work?
Watch this list for announcements of available jobs that
pop up occasionally. That's a good place to start. Keep
contacting agencies. Try to sell yourself on the basis of
your skill rather than on your resume. Offer to do a test
translation (most agencies probably have standard test
translations that they can have you do). Use your "kone"
from school and other associations. And good luck!
In addition to all the good advice that has been heard on
getting started as a freelance translator (or any kind of
translator, for that matter), I have this advice:
Learn about something other than the Japanese language,
the English language, and how to translate between them
isolated from subject matter.
Any translation that is worth paying for is about
something--subject matter, the field you need to know
to (1) understand the original and (2) write convincingly in
the source language. There are people who say they do
"general" translations only. I don't believe that. I think
they perhaps do what they call general translation out of
modesty because they think (perhaps correctly) that they do
not know enough about the fields they are translating in.
For many translators who come out of a language-learning
situation isolated from real-world subject matter, getting
good at translation will require study in fields that are
(at least in the beginning, and perhaps forever) extremely
boring to the translator. I suspect that situation results
in some translators leaving translation for things that are
more interesting to them.
Although my target was technical translation, I was
desperate for any kind of hands-on experience in the
US.There are two steps, initial step and current strategy,
that were totally successful. The initial step was looking
for volunteer opportunties. The next step was creating a WWW
For the first step, what I did was looking for some
Japanese language related organizations -- one I soon found
was a student organization publishing an information
magazine for Japanese students at the University of Oregon.
These people had some articles written by English speakers,
so they needed them to be translated but free or almost.
Great, let me do that...
Then, what happened was that actually this organization
brought other threads as well. Clients who put ads on this
"Japanese" magazine are by nature interested in Japan and
the Japanese market to some degree. Right on. I offered my
work almost for free, and instead I earned credits enough to
fill my resume or enough to make myself feel confident.
However my real target was technical/science translation.
Next step which is my current strategy is to create a home
page (ad) on the WWW. It's very much like fishing. Silent
for awhile, and one day, a big fish may come. Actually a big
fish came to me soon after (like three days after I
registered my home page with most major search engines.
Because they found me through WWW, this client was
computer literate, which meant exchanging files and all
other conversational issues were all done by electrically.
Also, when clients (including this big fish<g>)
contacted me by Email, they had already known my expertise
and weaknesses which were provided in my home page. No
client through the WWW has asked me for sample work,
although I sent a sample that best matches their needs
anyway: They seem very happy seeing actual work related to
their interest to a certain degree.
I started looking for volunteer opportunities July 95.
Within 6 months effectively, I grabbed direct clents, and
met opportunities other than translation (somewhat more
attractive and more active) but related to Japanese
I got my first real translating job working for a
semiconductor manufacturer last summer, and more than
anything else, my Chemical Engineering background and past
work helped me to get the job. While I only worked there for
a summer, ever since then I have had several opportunities
to do translation, and I was able to use my experience to
give my claims of being able to translate Japanese some
Kevin M Koga
I concur with other Honyaku guidance counselors: get a
job, preferably with a Japanese company or subsidiary
thereof, and preferably not with translating as your major
function. Learn every aspect of the business, and how it's
expressed in both languages, formally and colloquially. But
mainly, absorb it physically, actually do the things you'll
be translating, get your feet wet and your hands dirty. The
translations will come along in the course of time.
Advantages of working in-house:
Advantages of working through an agency:
- You can see the widget, fiddle with it, take it
apart. (I wound up installing them in the field.)
- You know the target audience, e.g., layman, company
stockholder, technician, sales rep nado and you can
tailor your translation accordingly.
- For letters, nado, you can get filled in on the
background, what transpired previously, and what this
letter is supposed to accomplish. Such information is
nearly impossible to acquire through an agency.
Disadvantages of working through an agency:
- Anonymity: if you botch the translation, only the
agency knows you're the screwup.
- Broad range of subjects: You'll learn, albeit
superficially, about almost any subject anybody would
- Right of refusal: An in-house employer owns your ass,
a direct end-user client effectively does. In the case of
an agency, you can turn down a job if you're too busy,
it's out of your bailiwick, or whatever. (But do so
quickly so they have time to find somebody else. Don't
leave the agency hanging in limbo for a week, then tell
them you can't do it.)
Disadvantages of freelance translating:
- Low pay.
- If they find out you're any good, they'll foist off
their worst cases on you. You end up with all the tuffies
and effectively subsidize inept translators who get all
the cushy jobs.
- Difficult to consult the client. You're mostly on
your own and have to figure out the jibberish for
Sure you want to translate? I'm not trying to discourage
you, but if you come up with a better way to make a living,
go with that.
- Low pay.
- Cycles of feast and famine. Sorta fun when you're
single, not so enthralling when you're married with bills
to pay and mouths to feed.
- No freedom. In-house, you can rest on holidays,
snooze it up. Freelancing, you're like the fireman, you
work when there's a fire. Two fires, you work twice.
- No respect. You're treated like a two-bit
Joe Mann lists "Low pay" as a disadvantage to freelance
translating. I have strong doubts about that. Was this
compared to in-house translating? If so, even if the
freelancer is working for agencies at low agency rates, a
fairly prolific and professional translator will be able to
make much more freelancing than it would be possible working
in-house. The dynamics of the situation, as I have seen them
work, are something like this.
A company with lots of translation work, a sense thay
they should train a good translator, and a sense that they
don't like paying agency rates for translation will
sometimes hire an in-house translator. However, in most
cases, the amount of salary they are willing to pay has a
ceiling to it, this ceiling being established more by
emotion than by economics. It usually runs about 500-600
thousand yen. Beyond that, the wa goes to hell, because the
salary of at least in-house foreign translators (along with
other information like who they go to bed with <g>) is
knowledge that many people in house feel a need and a right
to know. I know quite a number of in-house (ex, mostly)
translators who hit upon this rule of in-house translation
salary dynamics and found it virtually unsurmountable.
Even at dirt cheap agency rates, a freelancer should be
able to hit the million yen per month mark with dilligence
and ability. That's only about 50, 000 yen per day (actually
a bit less) working weekdays only. Do the arithmetic. It's
25 pages at 2000 yen. But since people capable of doing
finished translation would not really be willing to work for
this rate, use 3500 yen (still lower than the rate paid by
direct clients); that puts the page count per day at about
14 pages. Doesn't sound very tough to me, even for someone
who is not that speedy. When you get to the point of asking
for real money (market rates paid by the client--5000 to
10000 or more per page), the situation gets even easier.
So I really can't buy the statement that a disadvantage
of freelancing is low pay unless (1) the above is completely
off (I know from experience that it is not) or (2) companies
have started paying in-house translators well over 2,000,000
yen per month, which is not at all difficult to make as a
Bill Lise paints an enticing picture of potential
earnings for freelance translators but I wonder is this true
for most of us. I now work mainly for one agency,
spasmodically for a few others. I also work from Australia
and visit Japan for a few weeks most years.
My general rate for Japanese to English translation is
Y3000 per page of English (about 1000-1200 bytes) which has
not changed in the last 8 years (when the yen was cheap).
Over the years, the rising yen has gradually raised my
dollar income and I have not felt strongly motivated to
raise my rates with existing clients who keep me more than
fully employed. Some of you will possibly take the view that
I am lowering the industry standard by working for low rates
but I enjoy the work and I enjoy being busy. Retirement
Some time ago, when my principal client had a lean
period, he suggested I might discount my rates -- a move
which I resisted -- but it has prompted me to try to expand
my client base and, at the same time, upgrade my rates a
bit. This is an extremely difficult thing to do from a
From what I hear from other translators, the days of
Y8000 or more per page are over and the reality is that
translators who deal directly with end-user clients have to
work much harder than I do, travelling, selling,
negotiating, making tables, even layout and desktop
publishing work -- all of which are done by the agencies I
supply with English text. I don't begrudge my clients the
profits they earn from my work.
Bearing in mind that high rates usually involve
"administrative overheads" in addition to translation,
Bill's casual remark that churning out 14 pages per day 5
days a week doesn't sound too tough may not be realistic. In
my case, while "feast or famine" might be an overstatement,
I find I am usually either frantically fighting tight
deadlines or twiddling my thumbs (writing letters such as
this while I wait for it to be 10:00 a.m. in Tokyo when the
fax will start ringing and some new and exciting project
Like many others, I started in-house at a translation
company. I had had a little experience before that, but the
experience of, as I have explained it to others, "interning
at a major inner-city hospital" made me a better word
doctor. There I got to see all kinds of patients, some
savable and some not. I was under the pressure you need to
develop the arrogance you need to be a translator. (NB: This
does not mean arrogance toward the client or arrogance
toward the word. It means the ability to decide what the
text really means and how you are going to say it --
genuflecting toward the written words along the way -- and
then to decide that it is done -- as good as it's
going to get -- and it's time to move on to the next
patient/text. Unlike in a classroom, real-life translators
do not have the time, and should not have the inclination,
to spend a lot of time on maybe it means this and maybe it
means that. (Which is also why you should specialize and why
your specialties should be fields you're interested in so
you'll know enough to fill in the gaps and realize what it
means and why it's phrased the way it is and how this
is actually said in the field.)
On rates, I agree that working for direct, end-user
clients pays better. Yes, you have to do more, but I would
end up wanting to do that "more" anyway, and this way I get
paid for it. (This is things like sometimes talking with the
client-author and making tables look like tables.) On having
to talk with the client, I assume that if you are working
for an agency, the contact there is the client and you have
to talk with that person just the same as I have to talk
with my contacts at the end-user clients.
Further on rates, I would urge people to look at their
lifestyles, decide how much they need, divide that by how
many pages they feel comfortable doing, and then add another
20% or so (nestegg money) to get the per/page rate. Then
adjust that by whatever makes you feel comfortable with it.
If you are too busy at that per-page rate -- if you have
more work than you are comfortable doing -- raise your
rates. If you are in Japan, I would expect you to be pulling
down Y5,000 per page for J-to-E, and I would not be
surprised if you said you got up to twice that. This
assumes, of course, that you know the languages, that you
know the field, and that you are working for end-user
clients and interacting with them in their source language.
I've been enjoying this discussion of how a person should
get started as a freelance translator. I notice that people
seem to be advising based on their own backgrounds, that is,
those who came to translation from hands-on work in
technical fields recommend getting hands-on experience in a
technical field, those who started out as in-house
translators recommend starting out as an in-house
I would like to put in a good word for not having
real-world experience, not working in-house, not having a
specialty, etc. That's the way I started out ten years ago,
and I've had no problem keeping busy--yes, sometimes too
busy--since about the third month, and my rates are at the
top of the levels that have been mentioned here.
The person who started this thread said he "had two years
of college Japanese and lived in Japan for a year, " which
is not too different from what I had when I started out
(zero years of college Japanese and two-and-a-half years in
Japan). So while I'm sure being an engineer, working
in-house, etc., are all excellent preparation, they are by
no means necessary. Find some work, even on a volunteer
basis, do it well and on time, and find some more. There's a
lot out there.
As many Honyakkers may remember, I posted a question
about getting started back in the summer of 1994. I received
many kind, supportive, and helpful personal e-mail messages
(thanks again!), many of which offered advice along the
lines of that posted here. Based on my own experience, I
would have to say that one does not necessarily have to
start out as a technical professional or an in-house
During my academic days, I did a few minor translation
projects, and I enjoyed them, because they allowed me to use
my language skills at a level about that required to teach
college students to say Eki wa doko desu ka. After
leaving academia, I worked as a free-lance editor, but I
wanted to break into translation. This is the point at which
Honyakkers first met me.
I began answering help-wanted ads posted on Honyaku and
taking the translation tests offered by these potential
clients. A few jobs came in. Once completed, they became
part of the resume sent out to other potential clients.
Fellow Honyakkers referred me for jobs they thought I might
be good at. Now most of my work is in translation, and most
of the editing is somehow connected with Japanese subject
matter, such as a project in which I checked the completed
graphs and charts in a translation of a QC book. (I found a
number of switched labels and similar errors.)
As a result of getting repeat business from the same
clients, I'm learning a couple of unfamiliar fields. When
offered an unfamiliar field, I take a test and let the
agency decide whether I'm qualified or not. I've gotten good
feedback on my ability to untangle nasty, convoluted
sentences and to dig up correct terminology even in
My formal linguistic background is as follows: Cornell
FALCON program (6 hours per day for 12 months of language
instruction); Ph.D. in linguistics at Yale, with a
concentration in the history of the language; a year of
dissertation research at Ochanomizu Joshi Daigaku, and a few
summers in the Old Country. The rest has been all self-study
as I strive to compensate for my relatively short time of
continuous residence in Japan. Those textbooks designed for
foreign students on Monbusho fellowships are extremely
helpful in increasing one's linguistic sophistication in a
number of directions, as are novels, magazines, and rented
videos. All in all, I'm happy as a translator. Now if only
all agencies and direct clients could follow the sterling
example of the one client who pays immediately upon receipt
of the completed work...
Tom Gally wrote that he had "zero years of college
Japanese and two-and-a-half years in Japan" when he started
I'm curious as to how people with little or no university
education and only one or two years 'in country' acquire the
skills to become profession translators. I'd also like to
know what kinds of things you are translating. I am in no
way trying to sound snotty or sarcastic, nor am I implying
any lack of qualifications. I'm honestly just curious.
If twelve years of language teaching taught me anything,
it was that neither classroom time nor time in Japan is an
accurate predictor of how well a student will learn
Japanese. The coverage and quality of Japanese curricula
vary considerably from school to school. Some programs seem
to spend most of their time on origami, sushi-making, and
learning children's songs, while others are the linguistic
equivalent of boot camp.
If you're in Japan, you can spend your time lapping up
the language and culture and seeking novelties associated
with them, or you can spend your time moving in comfortable
circles, content with what you need to "just get by." ( I've
met some long-term expatriates who would probably starve to
death if they ever had to leave the gaijin ghetto.) Natural
talent plays a huge role, as do motivation and just plain
hard work. I've seen mediocre students wake up because of
falling in love with a Japanese person or because of
acquiring new friends who placed a priority on studying
instead of drifting.
Most people with two years of college Japanese and one
year in Japan would not be ready to translate
professionally, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility. In
fact, I once had a student with two years in Japan with no
previous language instruction, and she was phenomenal.
I sent a private e-mail to the original inquirer
suggesting that he tell employers exactly what he can do
with Japanese--read shuukanshi with little use of a
dictionary, understand NHK newscasts, etc.--rather than
telling them about his academic record, the hint being that
if he can't do things like this, maybe he's not ready.
In the end, it's not how many swimming lessons you've
had, but whether you can meet the times required for
Some people are disgustingly good at acquiring language
without the benefit of formal training. I once worked with a
Japanese man who was able to spot subtle infelicities in my
English without ever having lived outside of Japan. I went
through the academic mill, and I'd never have made it
without that background. But there's no denying that some
people (not many) have the combination of native linguistic
ability and motivation to "pick it up" themselves. More
power to them!
I've studied seven foreign languages extensively. Six of
these were as part of my formal education, and one
(Japanese) I studied entirely without the "benefit" of any
institution of learning. Yet Japanese is the only one I am
fluent in. It is also the one on which both my profession
and everyday social and family life are now based.
As for learning the fields of translation, this is an
on-going process. When I graduated from university, the
topics I now translate in (computing and telecommunications)
barely resembled what they are today. LSIs, fiber optics,
and microprocessors didn't even exist. I owe much more to a
lifelong love of electronics and gadgetry than anything I
learned in school.
Sorry if I appear to be scornful of education; that's not
my purpose. University taught me how to think and do
research, and put me alongside some very stimulating people
from all over the world. But it sure didn't teach me how to
do my job.
John De Hoog
I didn't mean to imply that I didn't have a university
education. What I said was that I had "zero years of college
Japanese." My university degrees are in linguistics and
mathematics, and the languages I studied were Russian (which
I can still read) and Chinese (which I've long since
forgotten). But what I studied in college and graduate
school has helped me only indirectly in my work as a
translator, and has been of much less use than the things I
have learned outside of academia.
I came to Japan at the age of 26 with no knowledge of the
language at all, and I didn't acquire much for the first six
months or so. Then, because my application for a work visa
was rejected, I had to enroll full-time in a Japanese
language school so that I wouldn't get thrown out of the
country. The school I chose was the cheapest in Tokyo at the
time; that's why I chose it. Some of the teachers at the
school were good and a few were horrible (one of the latter
was fired and is now a popular street palm-reader in Ginza).
I got excited about learning Japanese and I spent almost all
my non-English-teaching time for the next couple of years
studying and reading Japanese. I graduated from the school
and passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam (Level 1)
at about the same time I started looking for work as a
Though I made some blunders in my early translations (I
make them still), I think I was ready to begin translating
when I did. My brief post-university work experience in the
U.S. had involved proofreading and copyediting, so I was
confident of my ability to produce clean, readable English.
I also had, and still have, a strong distaste for
"translationese," those literal, unnatural translations that
some translators produce. A lifetime spent reading hasn't
Among the jobs I've done over the past year: The history
of an acting company for a theater program. A series of
papers on the Japanese and world oil industry. Several PR
video scripts. A project proposal for an oil refinery to be
built in Taiwan. Advertising brochures for televisions,
VCRs, stereos, and batteries. Several construction machinery
catalogues. An instruction manual for a currency processing
machine. Many business letters and reports. "The Kodansha
Furigana English-Japanese Dictionary" (as editor/adapter)
and "Japanese Verbs at a Glance" (as translator). Aside from
these last two, which did require some background in
linguistics, none of these jobs used any knowledge that I
had acquired at university.
Autodidacts of the world, unite!
You have nothing to lose but your resumes!
In the hope of pressing home the point that there are
more ways than one to make a living as a translator, here's
my experience. I was two years in Japan without any formal
training in the language when I undertook my first
translation for pay. After two years working in-house, I
became a full-time freelancer, full-time meaning ten to
fifteen hours a week. I now work for two (large) direct
clients, both of whom have other translators available, and
one agency. For six to seven months out of the year, I'm
quite busy in Tokyo. The rest of the year is spent on the
road -- cycling, kayaking, or just bumming around. I usually
carry a laptop and modem and a few EBs and will take on
large jobs as they come up.
Although proximity has its virtues, today's technology
makes it possible to translate from just about anywhere in
the world. (Naturally, you need to establish a relationship
with the client first.) I don't charge as much per page as
some of the people on this list, but I've always considered
that differential something of a "freedom tax." For me, this
kind of freedom is the principal reason I do the work I do.
Some of the posts on this topic seem to be equating good
Japanese ability with good translating ability, but that is
not necessarily the case. Although language skills are
undoubtedly vital, they do not in themselves guarantee the
ability to convey meaning from one language to another.
Transfer skills are also necessary.
Secondly, although nearly everyone on this list
(including myself) learnt how to translate through
on-the-job training, nowadays there is another option
available in the form of postgraduate courses in
Japanese/English translation (e.g. the courses in Hawaii,
Monterey and Brisbane). These are aimed at professional
translation (nothing like any translation you may have done
in your undergraduate Japanese courses), and they are a
shortcut to acquiring some of the knowledge and experience
that most of us have taken years to acquire. At the
University of Queensland, we are also often able to
introduce students to job opportunities that get them
started out in the profession. (Apologies for the plug!)
I myself learnt Japanese/English translation in three
quite different ways. After formal studies in Japanese I
worked in Japan as an in-house translator and then as a
freelance translator for about nine years. Then I did a PhD
on Japanese-English translation, and this provided a whole
new perspective and depth to my practical experience. And
now I teach J-E translation, and every day I learn
enormously both from my students' problems and from their
solutions to their problems.
I aquired my language skills through self-study. As in,
several hours a day (basically, because I liked it). I spent
nearly five years in Japan, the first two as an English
After two years, I was able to find work as an in-house
translator of magazine and newspaper articles about Japanese
society, politics, economics, and other subjects of general
interest. I was lucky: I applied at several companies for
in-house translation jobs, and none of the companies cared
as much about experience, academic background, etc., as they
did about my ability to apply my alleged skills to
their tests. The interview and testing process earned
me a demanding and fulfilling job, where I stayed for nearly
three years before returning to the United States and
embarking on the freelance path.
If pressed to explain how I learned enough Japanese in
two years to become a translator, I would say 1) I am
visually oriented, and readily took to kanji; and 2) I
learned natural sentence patterns, and expanded my
vocabulary, by supplementing textbooks with magazines and
other material designed for native Japanese readers as soon
as I was ready--maybe even before I was ready. I would
listen to the radio and watch TV even when I was not yet
able to understand one-tenth of what was being said, and in
the same fashion I tackled magazines, manga, etc. (I also
knew better than to try to force myself to slog through
material in which I personally had no interest. Thus I
inevitably chose manga or pop magazines over, say, the Nihon
I now do work for various agencies and the occasional
direct client. It has not been smooth sailing all the way,
and it sounds as though some people on the list make more in
a month than I make in a year! Then again, the cost of
living here is lower, and I have been known to turn down
work if it would cut too much into my leisure time. Thus
far, I have managed to pay my bills and even put a bit of
Most of my work as a freelancer has been in the area of
corporate communications (promotional materials,
etc.)--which I really enjoy. I've also translated a
health-related book this past year.
In addition to translation, I also do checking and
editing work. (Until I went to Japan, editing was my
I had the good fortune to be able to learn Japanese under
the direction of some first-rate literary translators at the
University of Michigan, and I remember one telling me that
"understanding the Japanese is the easy part; expressing it
in English is the hard part."
I've since found that to be true for myself. The limiting
factor on my skill as a Japanese-to-English translator is
not my Japanese, it's my English.
Here's my story.
Born in Hawaii, I was exposed to anime and tokusatsu in
the early '70s, when I was about six years old. I fell in
love, and they've been a part of my life ever since. When I
was ten, my family moved to the mainland (the SF Bay Area),
and I was stuck with dubs for about eight years. Then I had
the opportunity to get my hands on real anime, and by this
point manga as well, unedited and untranslated. I decided to
start studying Japanese so I could read and watch what I was
collecting in its original form. My first formal courses
were night classes once a week at a community college where
I lived, in my senior year of high school. As an aside, I
also aced four years of German in high school, but I hardly
remember any of it.
I also began attempting my first anime/manga translations
at this time. You can imagine what they were like. I wasn't
satisfied myself, both with my own work as well as what I
was seeing around me, amateur and pro alike, and kept
working at it, determined to improve. Back then the fans
were pretty receptive to someone making an effort to give
them something they couldn't get elsewhere, and this made
for a pretty safe place in which to start honing my skils.
Essentially, I began studying Japanese and translation for
personal satisfaction. I think having a personal interest of
some sort makes for much better motivation than simply
earning classroom credits.
Speaking of which, about this time I was going to college
(UC Santa Cruz), where I ended up taking another two years
or so of Japanese studies. I did get value out of my
coursework, because it helped me get the basics of grammar,
pronunciation, and writing. But eventually I hit a wall, and
to get over it I started reading novels as well as manga,
trying to resort to dictionaries as little as possible. As a
result, I can now read a 250-300 page bunkoban novel in
about a week, if I'm reading nothing else (a rare
In 1989 a computer software designer was advertising on
Usenet for translators for a new anime subtitling company he
was forming. I heard about it from a friend, contacted the
person in question (he was in New York while I was in
California), and that was how I broke into professional
translation--through the side door. I was fortunate in that
the other person to answer the ad was a native Japanese
speaker with English as a second language (born in Japan,
his family moved to the States when he was a small child).
Thus, we complemented each other very nicely. My years at
AnimEigo would be an intense, yet still relatively
risk-free, training ground.
In 1991, AnimEigo brought some of its operations to
Tokyo, and sent for me to take over subtitling as well as
translation. I didn't have a college degree (still don't),
and didn't have enough documentable experience to qualify
for a working visa on that basis. So I began attending
Japanese school. After two years of that, I took and passed
the Mombusho Japanese Proficiency Exam Level 1 twice, and
passed it both times with better than 80%. All the while, I
was living in Japan basically on my own, and had to learn
day-to-day conversation just to survive.
About a year ago, not long after I finally got my working
visa, Gainax, an anime/multimedia production company,
recruited me just as I was coming to the end of the road
with AnimEigo. Now I do a variety of translation work
in-house, and work on freelancing opportunities within the
industry. I've turned a hobby into an occupation, and most
of it has been flukes so far. Now I'm starting to exercise
some personal initiative, as I look for a publisher for a
couple of book translations, among other things. Here's to
whatever comes next...
My training was more or less conventional -- a year in
Japan during college, and then completed the Naganuma
advanced modern Japanese program -- but the first person I
worked for was a one-man agency who had started as an editor
in Japan with no formal language training; he pasted a
Touyou Kanji chart to his office wall, started at the top,
and memorized his way down. By the time he hired me
part-time, he was very successful as a translator, doing
mostly computer and equipment manuals. (He let me start on
less technical stuff that was too much trouble for him to
do.) His spoken Japanese was pretty bad, but his clients
(including some end users) loved him -- he did good work,
liked to go out drinking with them, and was generally seen
as a good fellow. So there are lots of different methods for
I've always noticed a conspicuous lack of translators
among those I studied Japanese with in university. Maybe a
lot of my contemporaries regarded the study of the Japanese
language as a stepping stone rather than a goal?
Here are some comments from December 1998:
The standard piece of advice for aspiring translators (at
least, it's the standard for me) is that finding a suitable
subject matter specialty is at least as important as
learning the foreign language. Most people who think that
they might like translating as an occupation fail to realize
that their clients will be paying them to translate specific
documents, and this will require the translator to know
something (often a lot) about a specific area of human
Are you very knowledgeable about a certain area of
science or technology? A branch of industry? Financial
business? Law? If not, you will probably have a hard time
getting much work.
Also, unless you are a phenomenal language learner, I
doubt that you can learn enough Japanese by self-study to
become a professional translator. It's a damn hard language
for English speakers (and vice versa). Assuming that you
have at least one of the aforementioned subject areas lined
up, I would advise you to spend a few years in Japan,
studying the language from professional teachers and
acquiring familiarity with the culture.
Once you have satisfied these requirements, we can begin
discussing how to find clients. Good luck!
In many ways anime/manga/game translations are even
more challenging than technical material due to the
often-esoteric subject matter and abundant use of
colloquialisms. I was raised on a steady diet of Japanese
anime myself (go ahead, ask me anything about Gundam :), but
I realized how "blind" a translator of pop-culture materials
is when I first sat down to do an actual translation of the
text of a video game a year or so ago. There simply aren't
any reliable study guides or dictionaries available for
up-to-the-minute slang and "street talk." It's a "you know
it or you don't" sort of thing, and there's no way around
the fact that living in Japan is the best way to pick up
> I think that most people outside the field
> underestimate the level of language skill needed
> for translation.
That's funny: I've noticed that many people in the
field seriously underestimate the level of language skill
needed for translation.
I don't know any other translator who said they started
out wanting to be a translator. Not that there aren't
people who do become a translator because it was a long-time
goal. But in the case for Japanese, I think it takes at
least five to six years of relevant experience and training
(learning) to become proficient at any level of translation
above the very very low value-added end. I graduated from
one of the major Japanese national universities with a major
in economics, did all my course work in Japanese, and it's
only been in the past four years or so that I have felt
comfortable enough to call myself a 'translator'. For
Japanese, anyway, it just takes a lot of committment and
dedication to set your sights that far ahead - which is why
most JPN-ENG translators sort of fall into the field.
I also never really set out to be a translator - my
interest was economics and finance, and that's what I was
doing when I sort of backed into translation. Of course, the
intense field work from previous jobs was a major help.
Other people have suggested it and implied it, I will say
very directly - if you don't have a solid background in a
particular field or hobby (a friend of mine makes a very
good living in Europe translating from French to Japanese
material on chess, an old hobby of ours from university days
- he'd starve to death in the States), it is almost
impossible to become a translator. Obviously, having a
broad, general and diverse background of Japanese (being
exposed to a variety of fields and experiences) will help
you diversity across fields, which may help if demand in one
particular field suddenly dries up - but ultimately, you
need English knowledge of the work you're doing to be a good
translator - knowing the Japanese is useless if you don't
know how to make it sound natural in English. Just ask any
other translators - even the best of them will struggle
outside a field they feel comfortable in (myself included,
and I'm not even one of the best of them).
I would also say that game software, anime, and other
such areas are indeed very difficult areas to master for a
translator, but if they are an interest of yours, than by
all means let that be your road to translation - there is a
market for work in those fields, and particularly for game
software. No one says everyone has to translate patents and
annual reports. I personally would much rather translate
something I find interesting; translating a piece of boring
or uninteresting material can be about as much fun as
watching paint dry.
There are very few people in this world who can translate
a complex Japanese phrase into a natural-English sentence
well. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done
however that demands such skills.
I am on my 5th year of living in Japan (not consecutive
years) and I feel that I am far from being able to translate
without a safety net. But in the environment that I work (I
kind of have an in-house HONYAKU list over here), the skills
that I have are valued and in my opinion, fairly well
Howard Joseph Jackson
Though several people have suggested specializing in a
particular field, that is not the only choice. I and at
least a few other people on this list do not have a readily
definable field of specialization. Some types of work in
which source-language comprehension and target-language
eloquence are more important than field-specific knowledge
are advertising and public relations; speeches, scripts, and
other texts for spoken delivery; newspaper and magazine
articles; and, for those who don't mind penury, literature.
If you have many interests and have trouble choosing a
specialty, then don't be afraid to become a translator first
and a specialist later or never.
Since I started studying Japanese only after I came to
Japan, I can't quite imagine what it's like to try to
achieve fluency in the language without being here. But
until you have a chance to come to Japan (and afterwards as
well), one of the best ways to prepare yourself
linguistically to be a translator is to read a lot of
Japanese. Read novels, magazines, newspapers, video game
manuals, manga--whatever you're interested in. Read a lot,
and keep reading even if you don't understand everything. If
you find yourself losing interest because it takes too long
to look up unfamiliar words in dictionaries, then separate
your reading from your vocabulary building: read and read
and read without a dictionary, and study vocabulary using
word lists and textbooks.
Finally, one advantage of translation as a profession is
that it allows relatively easy transition to and from other
professions. As others have noted, most translators start
out doing something else before becoming translators. What
is less often mentioned here is that people also leave
translation to take up other careers, including teaching,
editing, writing, research, and running their own
businesses. Many people, including myself, wear multiple
hats simultaneously. In each case, the experience gained in
one profession pays off in the others.
Basically you can be a specialist, or not, it depends on
your own priorities, interests, and favorite skills.
This is divided into two sections: Reading and
I started translating after I found I could keep reading
a book or magazine in Japanese with little frustration, even
after the batteries in my Canon WordTank had died<g>.
I'll just say I studied for a Lot of Hours to be able to do
that--and I have always found second language acquisition to
be Really Easy and Enjoyable, relative to most of my peers.
My study of reading and vocabulary was almost entirely
self-directed and I never went to a Japanese language
school, except for a very short time. What I did do was
regularly participate in a language exchange arrangement
focused on spoken communication. Also, throughout this time,
I was living in Japan and using the language for practical
purposes on a daily basis.
I recommend that you (and most people) read Richard
Bolles' book, What Color is Your Parachute?, and do
the exercises found therein for clearly identifying your
core interests and areas of genius. Identifying those things
that you can both do well, and love doing, is very
difficult, for most people. That's why going through a
systematic exploratory process to figure them out is very
important, for most people. Bolles' book offers a great
process for identifying both your favorite skills (What you
want to do) and your favorite fields of knowledge or
endeavor (Where you want to it).
To get started, you might enjoy translating something
that you've read and enjoyed, regardless of the field it's
in. My first (unpaid) translation was a short story that I
liked and wanted my non-Japanese-reading parents to read.
Learning to translate with good quality partly depends on
the quantity of translation work you've already done
(because the work, whether or not its paid, gives you
opportunity to meet first hand, and experience tackling, the
various problems involved in translation), so it couldn't
hurt to get started.
A method that I adopted years ago during the intense
language-acquisition phase was to make up my mind before
starting to read whether or not I would be reading simply
for general comprehension or as a grammar-skills and
vocabulary building exercise. That resolved up front the
occasionally agonizing dilemma of whether to interrupt the
reading process to make sure I could account for everything
that was happening in the text, or to keep on trucking,
mindful that we all have acquired much of our understanding
of our native languages through intensive, long-term
exposure, not necessarily via grammar books.
From July 1994:
I can attest from my personal experience that you do not
need to have some sort of advanced degree to be a
professional translator. Most of the time, my clients
couldn't care a whit that I never even finished a BA or BS
degree. I guess that makes me kousotsu in the
vernacular. I support myself quite nicely as a full-time
technical translator. Of course, I already have 8 years
experience in the business and clients care much more about
experience than anything else.
I started out translating in-house at a Tokyo sci-tech
magazine publisher. They were quite lenient about deadlines
(it was only a quarterly) and the editors would point out my
mistakes quite carefully.
Even though I did not have a degree, I had studied
university physics for two years and was quite interested in
the physical sciences in general, having read many science
magazines religiously (Scientific American, etc.).
If you have a particular field that you are interested
in, you might try making that your "specialty" by getting
and reading as many dictionaries and English publications
you can on that specific field. If you can demonstrate a
reasonable familiarity with the terminology for one specific
field, airlines, for example, then you can tell the
translation agencies that this is your specialty. Then, when
they come across something in that field and their regular
translators are hiking the Himalayas, your name will stick
out and they will call you.
The problem with going the freelance route is that you
pretty much have to call and fax and bother and pester the
agencies for at least six months before you will get any
reasonable response at all. Once they are used to hearing
your name, they will call you, but that first six months of
no income can be a killer.
From March 2001:
As a generalist, I don't think it is necessary to
specialize, except in learning Japanese and learning to
translate. Another thing: degrees aren't worth much. Get
past it. However you can get a foot in the door, go for it.
Answer a call for translators that gets posted on Honyaku,
for example, do a few trial translations... You need the
tools, the intellectual capacity and the motivation/work
ethic, but it won't work to fool anyone about your level of
Japanese. Be honest about where you are, get taken under
someone's wing, and study up while on the job for the first
two to three years. (Actually it's an ongoing learning
Translation is the school of hard knocks. You learn from
doing. There is no single "getting the job." Jobs
(hopefully) come one after another. Building good working
relationships is the goal. You like to work with someone;
they like to work with you and like your work. The pay is
acceptable. It may take time at first, but you get faster
and better with experience. Then your skills are worth more,
you can ask for more, you can handle more. When you can work
twice as fast, the same page rate starts looking quite good.
But you have to start somewhere. That's why some people
suggested working in-house. You don't have to start that
way. I didn't. But you do have to start somewhere. (Yes, get
thee to the Land of the Rising Sun...)
The well-worn marketing phrase applies:
Just do it.
You can certainly become a Japanese translator with no
experience of living in Japan. You just can't become a
Many people have stated that this does not hold true for
scientific/technical translation, but I don't even think
this is the case. Why?
For one thing, you will still have to converse with
Japanese clients on the phone, and your spoken Japanese will
have to be good enough to give them confidence in your
abilities. Unless you are some kind of prodigy, your spoken
Japanese is likely to sound stilted and unnatural without at
least a year of living in Japan. And no hanging out with
mostly foreigners, either (he says wagging his finger).
Further, even "technical" translation is hardly ever 100%
technical. There are always words or phrases that you must
have a handle on the language as a living thing to
On a different note, I would agree that acquiring
knowledge in a specific area is going to be much more useful
than studying the craft of translation itself in some
structured way. Translation itself you can -- must, really
-- learn by doing.
Even "technical texts" are seldom entirely
technical -- they are written by people in a certain culture
(in this case, Japanese culture) for readers in that
culture, and it is surprising how often authors of
"technical" texts assume that the reader has a knowledge of
some aspect of the culture. Therefore, the translator, who
always has to start by reading the text, must also have that
knowledge, and the more experience the translator has had
living in a Japanese environment (i.e., in Japan), the
better off she/he will be. Certainly it may be difficult for
someone who has financial problems to get to and live in
Japan, but I think every effort should be made to do it for
at least a couple of years, if one aspires to be a Japanese
On the question of living in Japan, I believe that it is
essential for learning to speak and understand real spoken
Japanese, with a few very rare exceptions, such as a young
man I met at a language school in Beijing ten years ago.
And the ability to speak Japanese is very handy when
discussing terms and the like with Japanese clients on the
phone. At this point, about 3/4 of my clients are based in
Japan, so I receive or make three or four phone calls in
Japanese every week.
I also agree with the people who said that experience
living in Japan is necessary for understanding the little
details of everyday life and how people express intangible
For example, I just finished an article that had a lot to
do with food and restaurants. I had to figure out what
those vague terms about flavors and ambiences referred to in
the real world, which I could do, because I've patronized a
lot of restaurants in Japan. Then I had to rewrite them in a
way that would make sense to English-speakers.
If you're translating patents or other highly technical
texts, you may be able to get by merely with an ability to
untangle long sentences, but even that ability is greatly
aided by the experience of listening to long
sentences (well, not as long as the sentences in patents,
but still pretty long [g]) and training your brain
to understand them on the spot.
At the very least, you need to be knowledgeable enough in
the field of each particular job so that you understand what
the author is saying (including what the author is not
saying and why) and are able to say it the way somebody in
the field would say it in the target language. And that
But do you need a degree in the specialty? Probably not.
Like being a translator, you just need to be good. In most
However, there are fields in which having a degree or
other qualification can make you "more real." If you are
doing patent work for filing and are yourself a patent
attorney, you will probably be able to get more money for
the work because it will be obvious that you are adding more
value. Likewise with a lawyer doing law. Or a doctor doing
However, the specialized knowledge (and the degree that
represents it) is only part of the total translation
package. So rather than worrying about the degree
requirement, I would worry about specializing in fields of
particular interest and spending a lot of time getting good.
You don't need a degree in translation. You don't need a
degree in English. You don't need a degree in Japanese.
Forget the degrees and medals and all and concentrate on
Start now, at the bottom of an economic cycle. By the
time it eventually hits a peak (don't even ask at what level
that will be) you will be experienced enough to take care of
yourself when budgets are cut.
Breaking into the market as a freelance translator may be
difficult, so try the old strategy of starting off working
in-house somewhere to develop skills. If you can pick up a
little work on the side, without a conflict of interest,
that is OK.
Develop superior skills in the target language. Do this
by deliberate study and careful reading, books on rhetoric,
for example. Expand your vocabulary so you don't fall into
the amateurish trap of falling back on the first word in
Nelson's and letting it go because it somehow fits (e.g.,
sekkyokuteki ---> aggressive, eager).
For much work, you don't have to be an expert in the
target field, but you have to be able to understand what the
experts are writing.
Develop an understanding for social limitations to the
quality of the original Japanese that you are given. I used
to refer to a translation company I ran for a few years as
the Silk Purse Manufacturing Co.
Buy books and get magazines in your target field and
output language, if you can afford them. Second-hand is good
enough sometimes. College textbooks in your field are good
to have. They will give information in context; scanning
(not necessarily studying) them will position you to
undertstand material. Develop a feeling for how people who
are native English speakers/writers (or a reasonable
equivalent) write for native English speakers (with support
of style books, editors, etc.) in your field.
If you become highly specialized, consider joining
professional organizations in that field.
Learn how to appraise client needs, client perceptions of
the original, the work required, and the desired output. Put
effort into developing client relationships for two-way
benefits. Know when to decline a job offer because (you need
not say it to anyone) it is too tough. Know when to accept a
job that is too tough to give you a profit (= decent return
on your time) because it is important for
I would add that it pays to subscribe to a few magazines
in one's special field and target language, to stay familiar
with what is going on. For experienced translators, skimming
this kind of material is enough to get a feeling for the
terminology, usage patterns, etc.
Scavenge the used book dealers for basic references even if out
of date. For one, you may get some older material to translate, and,
further, it is usually simple to judge if content is dated. Sometimes
older books have better explanations than newer ones. The best basic
reference on statistics that I have is from the 1940s.
Work hard always at CRM (Client Relationship Management) so
that when there are problems in the original you can explain them and
get a go-ahead for judgmental treatment, or clarification, as well as
acccess to information.
Learn to subsist on low income for a number of years.
Wear hand-me-down clothing. You only need one suit, one
shirt and one tie to visit clients.
Avoid my own field.
Aaron M Cohen
From November 2003, in reply to a question from a student of Japanese:
You might want to read the information provided in the following publications:
Morry Sofer, The Translator's Handbook, Schreiber Publishing (4th Revised Edition, 2002)
These books will explain the ABCs of getting into the industry, securing work as a freelancer, and so on.
John Glenn, Glenn's Guide to Translation Agencies (no longer in print, but perhaps available online or from other translators)
One thing that has come up here in past discussions of entering the
industry, and that is probably the most important point to emphasize to
you: Knowing Japanese or any other foreign language well is not enough.
You will need to develop extensive knowledge of a technical field or
two if you hope to make a living as a professional translator.
Specialties vary across a wide range, and include fields like
chemistry, pharmaceuticals, finance, engineering, telecommunications
and so on, but it is important that you develop a grounding in at least
one of these fields. One good way to do so is to work for a time for a
Japanese company as an in-house translator so that you can develop some
expertise and hone your skills.
John is exaggerating when he says you need to have a specialty
"if you hope to make a living as a translator". I agree that it is
beneficial to have a specialty, and I enjoy the medical and biotech
translation that I do, but there are plenty of people who make a living as generalists. It's a matter of needs and temperament (and knowledge).
Zachary is right. I do not have any particular technical
specialty myself, since my own background is in the social sciences and
it has been of little help for most of the translation work I do (the
occasional academic paper aside). I regularly lament the fact that I
took so few natural sciences courses as an undergrad.
But I do think this bit of advice is solid for someone in the early
stages of contemplating a career in translation. Having such a
specialty will certainly make your life easier (if less eventful) since
you will be translating copy in the same familiar field every day. And
you will likely be faster and consequently make more money at it over
the long haul as well should you work as a freelancer.
The absolute best thing you can do for yourself is to go to
Japan to live for a few years. Although just going to Japan is no
guarantee of becoming fluent, I can say with confidence that it is very
hard to get truly skilled at Japanese without living in Japan. Not to
mention that you need to have a good understanding of Japanese culture
to hope to be a good translator.
I would also do as much reading in Japanese as I could. In my
case, when I first when to Japan I found some computer magazines that I
was interested in and read those a lot. Since I was interested in the
subject, it wasn't a chore, and I also found that I learned a lot of
vocabulary etc that came in handy years later when translating.
You can start this now by finding Japanese web pages about subjects you
are interested in and reading them.
I also agree that having some kind of specialty is a good thing. It
doesn't necessarily have to be something complicated -- even if you
just have an interest in computers or video games, you may be able to
put your knowledge in that field to good use as a translator. If you
are still in school and relatively sure you want to be a translator, it
would probably serve you to take a variety of courses in fields that
are likely to be in demand in translation.
Translations are not just about foreign languages at
all. A huge part of the job is research, and also you need creativity
and understanding of your native language more than you need knowledge
of the foreign language. To me, translating a language and teaching a
language are totally different. But I mainly do E to J, so it could be
different from J to E.
No, I think it's just the same (and probably the same with any language pair).
BTW, I'm not sure I would say a translator needs more
creativity and understanding of one's native language than of the
foreign language (assuming one is translating into one's native
language, as is usually the case), but being able to write one's native
language well is certainly quite important, and is often taken for
granted, though it shouldn't be. After all, your translation is what
the client will see.
"Research" in the broad sense is a huge part of the translator's
job, and reducing this part is one of the main reasons for having a
speciality or two to concentrate one's work in. Which subjects will
have the most demand is somewhat tricky to determine, and changes over
time, but if you are not interested in any fields that enjoy large
demands for translation (e.g., if you are fascinated with medieval
Japanese poetry, but not much else), it stands to reason that you will
not make a very good living translating.
When I started translation I thought I would learn a lot about
Japanese, which I did, but I also ended up learning as much or more
about English, which I didn't expect.
Any time spent now mastering good writing skills will be well worth
your while. For example, can you distinguish between hyphens, en
dashes, and em dashes, and do you know when to use which? Attention to
such detail is one of the things that distinguish professional caliber
From April 1999:
I just struck me that many of the translators that I have
met have asked me "What did you do before." The assumption
seems to be that whatever I did before has some relevance to
what I translate. I have also seen only one person who
actually graduated from a school with a translation related
This would seem to indicate that most translators start
off somewhere else and then sort of fall into translation.
If anyone sends me a resume seeking work, I almost always
ask a question like "What did you do before?" (unless they
answered it in the resume, of course). I don't think most
people fall into translation from somewhere else, but I am
interested in knowing what fields of human knowledge the
person is familar with outside of the skill of
translation. There are a lot of people who are native
English speakers, who have learned Japanese as a second
language, and who can translate superbly, but who
unfortunately know absolutely nothing about anything outside
English grammar and Japanese 4-character kanji sayings.
That's great if you are translating a letter home to Mom,
but if the job at hand is a technical piece, I want to know
what sort of technical background a translator has before
farming out the job.
There might be generalists who argue that they can and
must translate everything. I would go along with the "must"
part in some markets, but seriously doubt the "can" part in
many cases. That position is backed up by questions asked on
this list. It is much easier to know how badly you are doing
in field B when you have a field A, in which you do good
work, to use as a quality/pain benchmark. Without a field A,
everything is (or should be) painfully difficult, and this
sometimes leads to misconceptions about quality and
We all did something else before we became
translators. And if we are lucky, the stuff we are
translating relates to our non-translation interests, in
which case there is a likelihood we may have done
some of that before or while becoming translators.
I have an "academic translation related degree", but
without about 6 years practice within the patent department
of a chemical maker, I think, I could not call myself a
Anyway there are a lot of befores, and it is good if one
can make use of them...
My pseudo-thesis (the exact nature of the work defies
explication) project was on "Career Paths for Translators"
and done back in 1997 for my M.A. in Japanese Business
Communication at Monash University. JAT and Honyaku people
greatly assisted in performing the research for this
paper. It was a small sample (under 100) of JAT members and
"In terms of age, in-house translators tend to
be younger than translators in other categories [the
two other categories being "freelance"and
"self-employed/self-incorporated"], and this could
indicate that these translators are in the beginning
stages of their careers. A high percentage of in-house
translators responded that they are planning to work
exclusively on a freelance or self-employed basis in the
future. Given that many have less than 10 years'
experience, this could indicate that in-house translation
is regarded as a career starting point by many
And in another part...
"Close to 90 percent of the translators surveyed
indicated that they have college or university degrees.
The majority of freelance and in-house translators have
undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications in the
social sciences (84 percent and 44 percent respectively),
and more than half (60 percent) of the self-employed
translators surveyed have degrees in the sciences....
Almost a fifth of the freelance and in-house translators
indicated that they have completed a formal course in
translation, however, none of the self-employed
translators had completed such courses."
[Note: Demographically, the self-employed translators
who were surveyed tended to be older, have more experience
in terms of years, and be overwhelmingly male compared to
the freelance and in-house translators surveyed. More than
half of the self-employed translators had a formal
background in the sciences and said that they translate in
very specific, narrow areas. In comparison, most freelance
and in-house translators had a social sciences/humanities
background or an "other" background. Judy Wakabayashi may
have more information on this, but at least in Australia and
Europe, T/I courses only came into vogue approximately 20
years ago, and at their inception, overwhelmingly favoured
the European languages....]
Last quote from my paper:
"The small percentage of freelance or in-house
translators who indicating completion of a formal course
in translation indicates that these courses may not be
required for their current employment.Cordero ["The
role of the university in the professionalization of the
translator" in Deanna L. Hammond, Ed. Professional
Issues for Translators and Interpreters, Volume VII,
John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1994, p.
117] stated that 'one of the reasons why the role of
the university in translator training ... is so
controversial is the fact that there are a great number
of translators, among them highly qualified ones, who
have had no specialized training as translators at an
institution of higher learning."
There we have it: the market (and perhaps even the
culture of the market) probably dictates the qualifications.
Leslie M. Tkach
I see translation as a means to exercise both my
engineering background and my second language. Both required
pretty much equal levels of effort to acquire, and I wanted
a career that put equal weight on both. Translation was not a
matter of "falling into" but of conscious, considered
choice. (By the way, I acquired my most recent engineering
degrees after I learned Japanese.)
David J. Littleboy
> This would seem to indicate that most
> start off somewhere else and then sort of fall
> into translation.
I prefer to think of it as ascending into