“I want to use my Japanese with work and become a translator!”
I’ve written a number of articles in the past about how to translate for beginners and getting translation experience. It’s been a while since I wrote those and my attitudes towards translation have changed.
This post is for people who have the Japanese skills and are now looking at becoming a translator.
If you are an intermediate/advanced Japanese skilled person and want to become a translator in the future, the following articles should help you.
Getting Translation Experience I – How to bulk up your Japanese skills and start getting experience.
Getting Translation Experience II – How to set yourself towards translation as a career.
Translating from Japanese to English for Beginners – Translating tips.
Translating Japanese for Beginners – The translation process in detail for beginners.
Lessons Learnt as a Beginner Translator – More translating tips.
Translation for Beginners – Translation Agencies – The industry from the agency’s perspective.
What an MA in Translation Doesn’t Teach You – What to keep an eye out for in an MA program in translation.
Different Roads, Same Destination
To say my plans for becoming a translator haven’t worked as I expected would be an understatement.
I didn’t want to do JET and become an English teacher because I was afraid I’d lose my Japanese and wouldn’t be able to use it anymore. (Wrong.) I started working in an office as a translator with no idea about translation, thinking I could do it because I knew Japanese. (Wrong.) I thought I needed schooling so took an MA in translation. (Which turned out to be useless.) I thought I would get loads of work right away as a freelance translator. (Nope.)
What I’ve learned from my own experience and talking with other translators is that there are many different ways you can get to your goal. Here are just a few examples of translators I’ve met and how they got to where they are today.
- Was a JET CIR and worked with entertainers for the government. Took an Law conversion program and became a legal Japanese translator for Japanese entertainers.
- Was a JET teacher for 4 years. Translated articles for a gaming website in spare time. Now works for Nintendo.
- Worked in an industry (engineering, computing etc) for 5-10 years, then became a translator in that field.
- Was a project manager for a translation company after MA in Translation. Now in-house translator.
- Started working as a freelance translator after college, no/little other work experience. Is struggling to work with just freelance. Works part-time as a waitress.
The thing I’ve noticed about translators is it helps a lot to get a job NOT in translation when you first graduate.
Even if it’s teaching English in Japan, or working for an importing company, it can be valuable experience. Working in Japan, even if you’re not using Japanese for work, can expose you more to the subtleties of the language. You can get a job in-house (for a translation company or other field) as a project manager, proofreader/editor. Working in the industry but not translating can teach you a lot about translation. Especially proofreading and editing!
Jumping in without knowing anything about translation, or not practicing translation for at least a year (yep, that long), can be really damaging and frustrating. Poor translations and service means a client that you’ve worked so hard to get won’t want to work with you anymore.
One great tip I heard was to translate at least 30, 500 word items on a subject. Then you can call yourself a specialist in that area.
And it’s not just translate it and then it’s done. Translating is about making the target text reflect the meaning of the original, while also not sounding translated. It’s not just translate word for word. Each text is different though and different subjects will tackle this struggle between source and target texts in different ways. I.e a novel or video game may completely change what the original said, but will have the same feeling and impact. A technical document will have a set style and be a more direct translation.
Why You Shouldn’t Work as a Translator Right Away
You can begin working as a translator right away but it will be a difficult struggle. It’s about seeing the bigger picture and achieving your goal down the line. Working in another field doesn’t mean you’ve given up on your dream! You must always remember that!
Here are some more reasons your shouldn’t start working as a translator right away.
- Lack of experience – not knowing how to translate; making the English sound weird; often making translation errors
- Lack of knowledge of subject – often making translation errors
- Lack of knowledge of the industry – not knowing how to approach people; not knowing how to sell your skills
- Lack of experience in a field – no one wants to use someone who doesn’t know the subject. (Including novels, games, etc)
How to Become a Japanese Translator
1. Gain Experience and Knowledge Not in Translation
Work in Japan
Working in Japan as an English teacher or assistant teacher is a great way to get into Japan.
It’s great for your Japanese language as you’ll live and work with Japanese people. It also teaches you more subtleties to the language that books alone aren’t able to teach you.
It also teaches you how to communicate and work with Japanese people (very, very useful when you need to communicate with Japanese clients).
You’ll also have the time to practice translation on the side, and maybe your school or local companies will ask you (or you can offer) to translate things.
Work in a Specific Field
Working in another field that interests you is a great way to gain valuable experience and knowledge and build up connections in that field.
You can practice translating texts around that field in your free time. This is great for building up field specific language and building a specialization in that area.
2. Gain Experience and Knowledge in Translation
In How to Get Translation Experience I I talked about practicing translation when you’re studying. This still applies when you’re working! It’s important to practice translation, any kind of translation, while you’re studying and/or working. This begins to give you the 2-5 years translation experience most positions ask for.
Translating from Japanese to English for Beginners has some advice for how to translate a text.
Update: Translating Japanese for Beginners has an even more detailed breakdown of the translation process for beginners to practice.
One great tip I heard was to translate something that’s already been translated, then compare your translation to the official translation. You can learn a lot about how a text can be translated that way.
I also think proofreading other people’s translations is a great way to see how translation works.
Don’t forget to ask people to read your translation. Getting a second opinion (especially from someone who doesn’t know Japanese), will help you work out what’s lacking in your translation.
The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation is a fantastic book to read when you don’t know how to translate. It’s more academic but can be great to show you the challenges of translating different texts.
3. Build a Network, Ask Professionals, Research
A lot of translation actually doesn’t involve translating. As I mentioned in What an MA in Translation Doesn’t Teach You, a large part of working in translation (especially as a freelancer), is building yourself up.
So working out your rates, developing a website, contacting clients and agencies (many translators say at least 300 applications in the first year!), building your online presence, networking at events, etc.
This can be difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing, or how to do it. And even more so if you haven’t worked in a non-translation position for a while.
If you’re working and feel your translation skills are ready, and you want to look for a new position using them, then now’s the time to start working on this. You don’t want to leave your job without having another one ready for you.
Some things to start researching and getting ready:
- Work out your rates and services – What are you good at? How much do you need to earn to live?
- Your own website – Show case your skills and services, make it bilingual. Have it easy to find via search engines using search engine optimization (SEO).
- Make business cards – With your services, email, twitter, website, linkedin, etc.
- Network at events – Translation or industry related talks and events. Recruiting fairs.
- Talk to people in the industry – When networking, on online forums, etc. Ask them how they got where they are! (You can learn a lot from others and it makes a good impression when you’re interested in them and not just selling yourself)
- Be active on social media – Share interesting articles and things other people would find useful.
Some of the best resources I’ve found to help with the above are:
- Marketing Tips for Translators (website with LOTS of podcasts, articles, etc)
- How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator (book)
- 10 Things a Freelance Translator Should Do Everyday (article)
I suggest doing all this and start getting some paid translation work while you’re still working. It can be really, really, hard when you’re working a 9-5. But it’s so incredibly useful to build everything up slowly rather than cutting your finance and jumping right in.
4. Getting Work in Translation
If you’ve been working in Japan as a teacher it should be easy to find an in-house translation position in Japan. Proofreading and editing as an English native for a Japanese company are fantastic ways to get your foot in the door.
(Japanese companies often don’t want to sponsor visas for people who are not in Japan. Which is why working as a teacher for at least a year is great to set yourself up for a future career in Japan.)
Two great websites for finding work in Japan:
There will also often be bilingual recruiting fairs, especially in Tokyo, which are worth going to.
In Another Field
If you’ve not been working in Japan but another industry and have been practicing translation on the side then you can aim to specialize in this area.
You can work on becoming a freelance translator in this field. Building up your network, writing articles, focusing on agencies in that field etc.
Or you can become an in-house translator or bilingual employee for a Japanese company. GaijinPot and Career Cross are always advertising bilingual positions for people with knowledge in computing and engineering to work in Japan. Often these positions also involve translation!
Becoming a Japanese translator isn’t easy and it won’t happen right away. But it is fun!
It was a struggle at first and I feel I’ve had to learn a lot of this stuff the hard way. But it’s been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot!
I still have a lot more learn too. You’re always learning Japanese and perfecting your translation skills.
I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. Don’t be in a rush to start working as a translator, otherwise you might find yourself stumbling. Keep the bigger picture in mind and think of a 5+ year plan to achieve your dream.
I hope you found this useful! Good luck!