This week we have a special guest article on translation by a professional in the field. Ever wonder what it takes to be a translator? Considering going outside of academia with your Japanese? See what he has to say about where your Japanese can take you and how to get there.
Japanese BA? Translation!
The world of Japanese language learning is quite an interesting place. Japanese is a popular language at universities and other institutions, consistently having more people enrolled than languages such as Russian and those whose roots run much deeper in Western culture than Japanese ever did. But there is a huge difference between Japanese language programs and, for example, Russian language programs, that many aren’t aware of – the push to academia. Whether it’s because most language learners- or at least those interested in such “exotic” languages as Japanese- are inherently more liberal and academia-leaning, or whether it’s because of institutional pressure, many people assume their only choice with a BA in Japanese is to specialize in an aspect of Japanese history or culture and get a Master’s, PhD, and become a professor. I’m going to talk about another choice: translation. Not just translation, but professional translation as a full-time career.
I currently translate for a specialized branch of the United Nations in Geneva (think your employment is limited to Japan or the US? Wrong!) while at the same time doing freelance and working my way towards a Master’s in Translation & Interpretation. I have professional experience doing Japanese to English translation, which is what I do for the UN, and English to Japanese translation (very rarely), as well as Japanese to English and English to Japanese simultaneous and consecutive interpretation. I double majored in Linguistics and East Asian Language and Culture with a focus on Chinese and Japanese, and have been studying Japanese around nine years, and Chinese six years. I will skip most of my history with Japan and Japanese so as not to bore you readers, but suffice to say like many reading this I came from a heavily academic background before getting into translation and interpretation.
The New Breed of Japanese Learner
I was pretty much discouraged from going into translation from the very beginning. Any professor I talked to would either look slightly disappointed, or ask if I were referring to translating literature or Genji Monogatari (psshaw! Everyone knows Heike Monogatari is where the fun is). Japanese programs I attended were also uniformly geared to churn out academics and scholars of Japan, the two notable exceptions being Cornell University’s FALCON program, which puts almost all its focus on speaking/listening, and the Inter-University Center in Yokohama, which goes out of its way to accommodate each student’s goals and desires. The Center also has superb and comprehensive courses in politics, economics, business, etc. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Yet the face of Japanese language learning is changing. Those in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation grew up with Greek and Latin classics held as the epitome of exemplary writing, and tended to judge other languages as worthy or otherwise depending on whether those languages had produced similar epics. Japanese certainly has; the first novel ever written was written in Japan. Many of the greatest Japanese literary translators, such as Seidensticker, started learning Japanese due to WWII and served in the U.S. military. After the war ended, many of them became the prime scholars of Japanese culture, and subsequently founded and encouraged programs to train students to also become scholars.
Today, however, the climate and economy is different. More people want to make a living with their language skills, without years of research and school, and very few people start learning Japanese because of wars or classical literature anymore. Many programs do not know how to approach this. How do you train a translator? How do you train an interpreter? How do you recalibrate programs so they focus more on active skills, and fields such as business or translation, rather than a diehard adherence to reading, grammar and rote learning of kanji? How will they address the current needs and desires of their students? Sadly, many programs are slow to change, and many will find this their demise, as there is a new breed of Japanese learner; one who prefers the Nikkei over the Genji, Nobuo Uematsu over Gagaku, and one who views language not just as a medium but as a calling and a profession. Yet this new breed of learner has almost zero representation in universities. Very few faculty members in Japanese departments have had professional experience in translation, business, or any non-scholarly field, and for those that do it usually wasn’t within the last 15 years. Academia has changed a bit in these last 15 years. Translation, however, has changed by unimaginable leaps and bounds.
The Jump from Academia to Translation
The reasons I ultimately chose translation over academia are numerous, but the main one is because I don’t have just one field of interest. I am interested in many things, and I love to learn, not just about Japanese history or culture but about everything. Yet input without output is stagnation, and I wanted to use everything I learned; I wanted something that would test every bit of my knowledge, and force me to learn more. A love of learning happens to be a trait that lends itself extremely well to translation. I also wanted to make full use of my Japanese language skills. I have no doubt that people in Master’s and PhD programs read so much in Japanese that they verge on seppuku at times, but it’s usually centered around a particular field or aspect of Japanese culture or history, whereas I have just a general interest about many things. I never felt the urge to become a specialist in one particular area. I also greatly enjoy speaking/listening, thus my foray into interpretation as well. Just a basic note: translation and interpretation are completely different. Translation deals with writing, interpretation deals with speaking – think of the movie “The Interpreter.”
What is professional translation actually like?
Before anything else, let’s talk about what the world of professional translation is actually like. When one thinks of Japanese translation, perhaps they imagine someone translating manga or Japanese literature in Microsoft Word, or dare I say by pen and paper, pondering over the meaning and nuance of each word. In reality, 90% of ALL translation is technical translation. This is true for all languages, not just Japanese. For Japanese, some of the biggest markets for translation are automotive, pharmaceutical, patents, biotechnology, and business/finance. There are very few full-time translators who can make a living off translating literature or manga, although it is possible if you already have a job to sustain yourself, such as English teaching, or are married to someone with a job and want something to do on the side. Especially for manga, there are many people out there willing to translate it for free (google “crowdsourcing” in your free time), and a lot of it is just poorly written in Japanese, yet if you reflect that in your English translation you will not get another job. I don’t mean for this to discourage anyone, as I’m sure these are the fields of translation most students are interested in, and of course someone has to translate them, and that someone could be you. However, manga and literature are still the smallest, least profitable, and not to mention hardest fields. Yes, technical translation IS easier, due to the almost complete lack of ambiguity.
In terms of language combination for Japanese, the biggest market is Japanese->English translation. English’s role as a lingua franca holds true even in translation, as many companies have their translations initially translated into English, and then translated into other languages. For example, if a Lithuanian translation agency has to translate a Lithuanian document into Korean, it’s likely to have the document translated into English first, then have it translated into Korean. This is because much more people can do English->Korean than Lithuanian->Korean. Thus, English turns into a medium for translating documents; the documents being translated into Japanese->English are often going to be translated into several other languages as well, after they are translated into English. This increases demand for English speakers dramatically, and is good for most people reading this, as their native language is probably English, and chances are their strong point in Japanese is passive (reading) knowledge. The market for English->Japanese translation is, predictably, much smaller. There is demand for Japanese->German, Japanese->Chinese, but it is still nowhere near Japanese->English.
Just a side note, I mentioned Microsoft Word earlier, but many translators, especially those working in a professional setting, use technology to boost their productivity, such as advanced virtual glossaries and “translation memories.” Many companies are now even requiring their translators to use these tools, collectively called CAT tools – Computer Assisted Translation. Being familiar with these will give you a significant boost when looking for jobs. And, as a further side note, humans are not going to be replaced with machine translation anytime soon, especially not for Japanese.
What makes a good translator?
What traits are important for the translation profession? The ideal translator is flexible, adaptable, good with technology (or willing to become good with it), an excellent writer, and can learn foreign concepts quickly. The synthesis of these traits results in an analytical person who pays close attention to detail. Hold on there a second. Did I mention biotechnology? Automotive?! The vast majority of translators, including myself, come from an academic background, we are 文系, not 理系. What do we do?! This may seem like a hindrance at first, but in reality there are so many things a translator has to learn that even those who have a scientific or technical background are going to be encountering many fields they have no familiarity with. Don’t get me wrong though, if you have a background in economics, law, or technical fields then other translators will worship you as a god. But how does one actually learn these things? It’s not as hard as it sounds. Don’t know what a fuel injector is? Look it up. Don’t what it means when a market is bullish? Look it up. Almost everything you need to know you can find online for free, you just need good research skills. Research skills are what makes or breaks a translator.
The biggest struggle when you translate into English is sounding like the engineer who wrote about fuel injectors in Japanese, or sounding like the analyst who wrote about bullish markets in Japanese. Your writing in English must sound like that engineer or analyst wrote it in English themselves, and this is usually a matter of terminology. Do you translate 設備投資 as “equipment investment” as the kanji literally means, and as the term that shows up in many online dictionaries? Or do you read about economics and finance, and find the term that’s actually used in English, “capital investment”? Do you translate 排気量 as “emissions”? Or have you read the basics about a car engine, and know what it’s really referring to, and what it’s really called is “displacement”? (The total volume of the space traversed by the pistons). This is what distinguishes anyone just putting random words into Google translate from an actual translator. Translation is not about words, it is about concepts and images.
How do I know if I’m ready to do translation? How can I prepare?
How does one even know if they are ready to translate yet? The quick and dirty answer is that many translation agencies will give you a test, and if you never hear back from them after taking it, then you aren’t ready. When you translate, all that matters is what the client wants. If your language skills are sub-par, but the client likes how you write, then congratulations, you are ready. If your language skills are great, but the client doesn’t like what you do, then unfortunately you are not ready. There is a classic saying about translation: translation is like a mistress; if it is beautiful it is not loyal, if it is loyal it is not beautiful. But this is not a translation theory class where you sit around and discuss subtle nuances and whose translation is best. In reality, your client decides whether it is loyal, and your client decides whether it is beautiful. Most serious companies have comprehensive quality assurance steps, however, so don’t think you can just BS your way through a translation.
The longer answer to the above is that to get to the level of effective translation you need to read A LOT. Read the newspaper everyday in both English and Japanese, study economics, basic scientific principles, the basics of biotechnology, how a car engine works, etc. A translator IS NOT an expert in these things, his knowledge (or her knowledge! translators are overwhelmingly female, something to do with being better at communication..*cough*) is what the Japanese refer to as 広く浅く, wide and shallow; a translator just needs to know enough to make it sound like an expert wrote the English translation. Your English must also be impeccable. If your English is not impeccable, if it’s just average, then there’s not a lot of reason to hire you over a Japanese person whose English is also average, because that Japanese person can probably grasp the original Japanese source material better than you can, and the agency’s editor can fix his English after.
Realities of translation
Translation is not just about translating the document, however. I believe anyone with decent language skills could produce a viable translation if given enough time. Translation is also about SPEED. A translator just starting out will be expected to translate 2,000 words a day. A seasoned translator does 3,000 words a day, usually at around 500 words an hour. A beginning translator will not be doing anywhere near 500 words an hour, at least of very high quality, which means they will be spending at least 7-8 hours doing those 2,000 words, everyday. You just don’t have the time to look up each word, to ask friends or get help. You need some background knowledge of the material you are translating beforehand. Your Japanese needs to be good enough to not trip on one or two words you don’t know, because there will always be words you don’t know. You need to translate it into ENGLISH, not Japlish. A lot of English natives get too caught up by the Japanese, and create unnatural sounding sentences in English because they are so obsessed with getting every little detail. This goes back to “what the client wants” and “translating the image,” not the words. The client doesn’t want to see unnatural English anymore than he wants to see what Google translate can regurgitate. In the field of translation, those of you who have English as your native language are very lucky, but only if you take advantage of it.
Things like passing JLPT 1-kyuu aren’t real indicators of how you will handle translation. Instead, get a newspaper, magazine, or document in Japanese. Read a few sentences in Japanese, and then put it away. Ask yourself, what did I just read? What was it talking about? What is the image in your head? Can you describe it in English? Can you analyze it? Many Japanese learners are so used to being told that their Japanese is amazing by their friends and teachers that it can be hard to admit to ourselves that our language skills could actually use some work. The truly successful translator is humble enough to realize that even basic grammar is worth his time to review and refine.
OK, I’m not quite at the level to do professional translation, but I want to be. What can I do?
I suspect many people reading this know they aren’t quite at this level just yet, but are very interested in becoming more advanced so that they can do translation themselves. Let’s talk about how to make this happen. Let’s say you have a BA in Japanese; you took 3-4 years of Japanese in university, and most likely have had some experience in Japan. In this case, you are already well on your way to becoming a Japanese translator. Individual variation notwithstanding, you are much closer to becoming a Japanese translator, than you are a Japanese professor. But you still have work to do. Here is a great list of the 10 best ways you can prepare for a career in translation, given by one of the top graduate schools for translation and interpretation. It covers a lot of what I’ve said and more.
That seems like a lot of work. Is it really worth it?
This may seem like a daunting list, so let’s talk about some of the benefits of a career in translation, and why it’s worth it. Japanese->English is one of the most lucrative combinations for translation (alongside Arabic, Korean, German, and Chinese) with a high demand for decent translators, so you could be very well off if you go this route and play your cards right. This is your hard work and suffering paying off. Ever felt like crap when someone said “You only speak 2 language?! My friend speaks 4! English, Spanish, Italian, French!” Well, guess what, Japanese translation pays more than all of those combined, and the demand is much much greater. You have learned a language where you can truly distinguish yourself, and make yourself stand out. I also do Chinese->English translation a few times a month, and on average Japanese->English still pays more (this would be a good counter to the “Why didn’t you learn Chinese?” remarks). This fact will probably shock people, but it’s mainly because of the large amount of Chinese people who are actually fairly good at English, versus the startling lack of Japanese who aren’t. Chinese make up one of the largest groups of immigrants, exchange students, and foreign workers in many countries, whereas Japanese have largely stopped going abroad altogether. There are also more people learning Chinese now, and more government support behind programs to teach people Chinese (it is considered a “critical language” by the U.S. government now). In the end, a large supply leads to a weak demand, regardless of the intrinsic value of anything. The value of currencies is also a very large factor.
The two paths of translation – Freelance vs. In-house
OK, back on track. There are two ways to go about a career in translation: freelance and in-house. Freelance translators get their work from clients and agencies, which they must find on their own and maintain good relations with. The advantage of freelance is freedom. Rarely do you ever meet clients face to face anymore; many translators translate for years these days without ever seeing who they are translating for. This is because all the translation is done on the computer, and all the transactions and correspondences occur online. This basically means you can work from home, OR work from anywhere you want. Want to stay in Thailand for a month and go to the beaches? Eat kimchi jiggae in Seoul? Go right ahead. Bring your laptop and you can do your work from anywhere! Just realize that speed and productivity are still the most important things for translators, and time differences between your client and yourself can make for some awkward work hours. You need to be on-call for your steady clients, and reply within a few hours at the very latest if they contact you.
Freedom comes with a price, though. Immigration policies of countries like Japan and the EU are strict, and you will not be able to live in Japan or many countries permanently (i.e. more than 30-90 days at a time) doing freelance work; you will need a company to sponsor you, or you will need to marry a native. There are some ways to get around this, but they are beyond the scope of this article. In the U.S. when you have a job your employer pays half of your social security tax, and you pay the other half. When you are freelance, you pay all of it. There are also other taxes for being self-employed. This is offset by the fact that you can claim many things that you buy as business-related (e.g. for your “home office”) and can get tax deductions, though the IRS will definitely be keeping its eye on you. Anyways, if you are someone who loves freedom, are disciplined and organized, and able to keep calm if you suddenly have a drop in your income, then freelance may be for you. As I said before, the Japanese->English translation market is particularly lucrative; it is more likely you will have to turn down work than beg for work IF you are a decent translator. Starting out and finding clients is the most difficult part. It should be mentioned that a certain degree of social skills are also important to make this happen, and important in general for freelancers, even if the interactions are not face-to-face.
The two paths of translation – Freelance vs. In-house
Then there’s in-house translation, which is translation at a company. In-house translation positions used to be common, but are now fairly rare among most languages, as many companies now just hire one project manager (who often doesn’t even speak the language) who contacts freelance translators or agencies around the world and outsources the work. This is much cheaper than training new hires, giving them benefits, etc. However there are still a good number of in-house positions for Japanese, both in the U.S. and Japan (if you want to both translate full-time and live in Japan, this is ideal). The great parts of in-house translation are on-the-job training, a steady income, and benefits. The downside is that you don’t really get to pick what you translate, and you will have rigid work hours (though some people prefer a set 9-5 schedule). Do not underestimate on-the-job training; the difference between having a mentor and someone to correct you can be the difference between life and death in translation. It is a HUGE advantage of in-house, even more than a steady income. Not to mention that you are getting paid and trained at the same time.
You can always mix and match as well, for example doing both in-house and freelance for maximum cash-flow, or doing in-house for 2-3 years then going freelance after you have a steady client base and advanced training. The choice is yours, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. I should note that good in-house positions generally look for people with a few years of translation experience, or an advanced degree in translation. There are also certain idiosyncrasies depending on the industry. For example, companies recruiting for in-house translation positions in the finance industry usually refuse to hire anyone except those who have a background or actual experience in finance and business, regardless of their translation qualifications. The same is somewhat true of science-related in-house positions. For legal and medical-related positions, it’s hard to find actual lawyers or doctors who have the time or desire to do translation, so the barriers and prerequisites to entry tend to be less strict. I spent most of this article talking about all the things a translator must learn, but specialization is perfectly fine too (e.g. translating ONLY automotive-related materials, or patents, etc.) if the demand for that field is great enough. In any case the bottom line is this: start working on your background knowledge, your 背景知識 ASAP, especially if you have a particular field in mind.
That’s it for now. I hope you now have a realistic view of translation as a career, and the ways you can prepare for that career. Whether you choose to become a professional translator or an academic, any path worth following will always take time and work.
If there is a specific area people want to know more about, I’m sure there will be an article on it sometime in the future.