Happy international translation day! This is my sixth year as a full-time translator and I wanted to share some things I’ve picked up about learning Japanese and translation.

If you’re learning Japanese because you want to be a Japanese to English translator then buckle down because this is the post for you.


Just because you know Japanese, doesn’t mean you can translate

If you’re serious about becoming a translator then you need to realise that translation is a separate skill from language ability. Just like how reading, writing, speaking, and listening are all separate skills, so are translation and even interpreting.

Yes, you need to have a good command of the Japanese language (reading in particular if you want to translate), but you also need a strong command of English writing.

If you want to improve your English then you should check out these posts:

And read these books:

  • The 10% Solution by Ken Rand
  • Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
  • How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript

But what Japanese do you need to know?

If you’re currently studying Japanese (and arguably even professionals should continue their studies in some form or another) and what to know exactly what kind of Japanese you need to improve, then read on!


Start with at least JLPT N2 proficiency

You don’t need the JLPT certificate to be a translator (although it helps for finding work), but at least studying all of the JLPT N2 level Japanese is a good goal to start with.

Studying for the JLPT provides you with a strong understanding of the core foundation of the Japanese language.

According to the official JLPT website, being able to pass N2 level reading displays linguistic competence in “reading written materials on general topics and follow their narratives as well as understand the intent of the writers.”

A career in translation will throw a wide variety of texts and topics at you, so being able to understand a wide variety of texts is essential. And understanding the intent of the writer is often more important in translation than the words they’re using.


Continue studying for the N1 even after you become a translator

Even if you become a professional translator, it doesn’t mean you’re reached the end of your studies. Continuing to learn the language and improve is essential for professional development which leads to growth in a long-term career.

Although you don’t need the N1 certificate to be a translator, at least continuing to study at that level and beyond, can be very useful.

As you can probably see from my book reviews, a large amount of literature and other media created for Japanese people contain advanced Japanese. “Advanced” Japanese is basically daily Japanese for a native speaker. Certain kanji, words and grammar patters might not be as common, but they’re still used on a regular basis.

The JLPT N1 level is also useful for business Japanese, which can aid you in correspondences with Japanese clients.


Grammar and vocabulary is more important than kanji

A lot of younger people focus on how many kanji they know, but that’s only the surface level of the language. For translation your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is arguably a lot more important because of the implied meanings they can potentially carry.

Grammar gives you the context for what, where, and how certain actions and events are taking place. Japanese narratives often switch between past tense and present tense depending on the order of events, whereas English prose is almost always written in the past tense. Literary and manga translation can be tricky for a new translator who tries to follow the grammar patterns one-for-one in their translation.

Vocabulary can also carry double meanings and have certain nuances that a Japanese native can easily pick up. But a lack of understanding and over-reliance on dictionary meanings can lead to direct translations that mean something completely different from the original text.

Obviously using dictionaries, reference documents, and search engines is incredibly important (not translator translates without these!), but a strong understanding of grammar and vocabulary means that when you come across something with an implied meaning, you’re more likely to pick it up yourself. If you try to translate something you don’t understand, then your target audience will also probably not understand it either!


Read widely in Japanese

Even if you have no interest in becoming a literary translator, I still highly suggest you start reading literature and other books in Japanese. Light novels are fine to start with, but as the name suggests, they’re light reading. Literature, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, non-fiction, and essays all expose you to a wide variety of topics and language, but more importantly a wide variety of writing styles.

If you want to work in a particular field (such as game translation) then of course, focusing on text in that field is important, but having a broad exposure to the language is important too. Reading widely in Japanese means you’re always picking up new language, idioms, and references, and familiarizing yourself with a variety of subjects and writing styles.

In fact, if I have two candidates in front of me for a creative translation job and one has JLPT N1 but doesn’t read books, and the other had N2 but reads 10-20 books in Japanese and English a year, I’m more likely to hire the reader.

If you want to start reading more then check out the Reading Japanese Novels category.

Learning Japanese for Translation

What Japanese do you need to study to become a translator?

To sum it up, a good start with your Japanese studies is to aim for JLPT N2 proficiency, while also reading more books and working on your English writing. (Reading more will also help you when it comes to the reading comprehension sections for N2 and N1.)

A strong understanding of low-advanced Japanese is important to start with but continuing to study even as a professional is even more important. Even after translating full time for six years, I still try to keep up my studies and reading and am always learning something new.


Side Note: Interpreting is different from translating. Interpreting is when you translate (yes, same verb, that’s why it can get confusing) the spoken word, whereas translation is more about the written word.