166 - Becoming a Japanese Translator

Thinking of becoming a Japanese translator?

So you’ve been studying Japanese for a while now. You went from sayingkonichiwa and O genki desu ka? to having entire conversations in Nihongo. You went from reading Genki or Minna No Nihongo text books to mangas and maybe even newspapers and the like. You’ve hit a point where you have the confidence to work in the language. Or maybe you want to get to that point soon.

Now the question is, where do you go from there?

There are many numerous, maybe uncountable ways to make a living from becoming bilingual in Japanese.

Today we’ll discuss one of those options: How to become a Japanese translator.

Just as there are many, many, many ways to use your J-skills out in the world, there are also as many types of translators and ways to become one.

Types of translators:
ほんやくしゃ の しゅるい
Translator types
Literally: "Translator + の + types"

*Before we dive into this, just to make this clear, translation is different from interpreting.
Translation (翻訳) deals with written words while interpretation (通訳) deals with spoken ones.

翻訳者 = 翻す+訳+者
ほんやく = ひるがえす + やく + もの
Translator = turn over + version + person
Literally: "Translator = turn over + version + person"

通訳者 = 通す+訳+者
つうやくしゃ = とおす + やく + もの
Interpreter = to let pass through + version + person
Literally: "Interpreter = to let pass through + version + person"

There are four main categories we could place translators into:

1) In-house translators

In-house translator
Literally: "Company + inside + translator"

These are translators that work on-site, usually at their client’s office or maybe part of a special translation division in a company. The trend though, like so many other fields these days, is to move away from this model and outsource translation work more and more.

2) Agency

Translation agency
Literally: "Translation + company"

Agencies are located in the local area the clients may be in, or they can be as far away from Tokyo as New York. Companies, and sometimes even other agencies, outsource work to an agent company. The agent usually has divisions for certain types of translation, which we will discuss soon. Usually there is an editor (エディター) or main project leader (プロジェクトマネージャー). Then the project leader assigns the translation assignment or project to a team of translators. For larger projects, the teams can be as large as 10 to 12 people. Usually the project leader will distribute a vocabulary list or list of rules for the project, especially if the client directly requests this. A common pattern is to have translation schools moonlight as translation agencies.

"Edit" in Japanese can be said in various ways

てんさく する ・ てんさくしゃ
Literally: "Add + scrape off + do/person = corrector"
Note: This word really means to edit work. Adding things and taking out things essentially.

こうせい する ・ こうせいしゃ
Literally: "Correction + correctness + do/person"
Note: More often than not, this word is used for a specific person who proofreads the work by the translators. Though, I have seen a few occasions where it was used interchangeably with the カタカナ word エディター (editor).

へんせいする ・ へんせいしゃ
Literally: "Compile/edit + to become/establish + do/person"
Note: This word isn't used often in the context of translation editors. You might, however, see, for example, 予算編成者 (よさんへんせいしゃ // budget editor).

If you do well in your translation course with a translation school (翻訳学校 ほんやくがっこう) on-site or via the online courses (通信講座 つうしんこうざ) they will likely offer you a job to work on translation projects with them. Simul Academy, Fellow Academy, Alc and Sunflare are good examples of famous companies that offer online translation courses that may lead to either a recommendation by them to other agencies, or work directly with them.

3) Freelance translator

ふりーらんす ほんやくしゃ
Freelance translator
Literally: "freelance + translation + person"

Freelance translators often find work through agencies as subcontractors. Thus, when a translation project comes up, the project leader of the agency may subcontract it to the freelancer. As you can imagine, though, the payment for the freelancer will likely go down due to the agency middleman.

More lucrative freelancers work directly with the client. The toughest part about being a freelance translator is that you must do everything. You have do your own marketing, negotiating of contracts, translate, and sometimes even edit your own work. It’s hard enough to find time to translate. A lot of freelancers are quite tech-savvy these days. They have their own blogs, Twitter accounts and even Facebook pages. Essentially, freelancers are entrepreneurs.

4) Remote translators

ざいたく ほんやくしゃ
Home-based translator
Literally: "At/in + home + translation + person"

These are translators that work remotely (as in off-location) directly for a client or agency. They are employees, but are allowed to work from home. There may be strict regulations, like you must have a certain speed of internet, certain types of computers, and I’ve seen some companies require you to prove you have an ergonomic chair. No joke.

Basically, they are employing you to translate, and they want to ensure that you will be available to do all the work necessary and not be off playing with your cat when you should be working. Having an ergonomic chair can help... I guess.

Although things can be strict at first, once your company trusts the remote translator, I’ve seen remote translators be able to be in Japan one part of the year and in France working another part of the year. As long as you travel slowly and make sure you get your work done, this can be a pretty awesome job. As mentioned above, unlike freelancers (i.e., entrepreneurs), as long as you continue to produce quality work, you get a guaranteed salary with benefits and a steady flow of work.

Freelancers often get more work than they can handle at one time AND still have to do their own marketing. As a 在宅翻訳者 (ざいたくほんやくしゃ// home-based [i.e., remote] translator), you work as part of a larger organization. In theory, you should not be assigned more work in any one day than you can handle. Usually, you don't have to deal with the clients directly at all. All your working conditions are prearranged. This is a major advantage over freelancers who have to negotiate every aspect of the work for themselves.

My experience as an in-house translator was a bit different than your usual 社内翻訳者 (しゃないほんやくしゃ). My boss and I were a two-man team dispatched by a recruitment agency to an IT company. We worked on-site at the IT company (IT系の会社 // ITけいのかいしゃ) in Nihonbashi (日本橋 // にほんばし) in Tokyo. As far as everyone there knew, we looked like regular employees. But actually we were an outsource team. Project managers at the IT company would come to us with translation or sometimes even interpretation job offers. We would then charge them for the work. Japanese being Japanese, they preferred working with us over other agencies because we were there in person. They could come check in on us or go see us if there were any changes.

Where to apply:

I've seen many offers for remote working assignments through Flexjobs.com. It is about 100 USD per year. Nice thing, though, is that I have received many offers through that site without having to apply due to my resume being uploaded there.

The more famous options are Proz.com and Translatorscafe.com. You create a profile on each site and then can both apply, and search for jobs and agencies on the sites directly. To have full access however, you must pay a yearly fee. You can still apply for jobs without paying, though. Flexjobs.com does not allow you to do this.

The only major negative is the sheer volume of competition on Proz.com andTranslatorscafe.com. Thus, applying for jobs can A) become a numbers game and B) become a very quick race to the bottom. With translators (called "linguists" on the sites) applying from all over the world willing to work for rock-bottom prices, it is very easy to get into a price war. Everyone loses price wars. Don't engage ;)

I also know of many translators who have found their dream clients on Proz or Translatorcafe. They didn't settle. They knew their value.

I often see job posts on Craigslist Japan in the editing and writing section.

I was told by my fellow translator 先輩 (せんぱい // a person who is more advanced in a particular study than you) to buy the yearly 翻訳事典 (ほんやくじてん // Translation Journal) and apply to as many agencies listed in the back of the book as possible. I also read the Tsuhon (通訳翻訳 // つうやくほんやく) and apply to agencies directly in the Tsuhon directory as well. Sorry, no English there. But good chance to practice your J-skills for reading.

When you apply:

When you translate, ideally you would translate in a field you are knowledgeable about. You will usually see a list of what are called 取り扱い分野 (とりあつかいぶんや // fields covered by the agency you are applying to). Below is an example of one company's "covered fields:"

Company X
Covered fields

せいじ  けいざい、 きんゆう しょうけん、 ほうりつ けいやく
political economic, financial stock trading, legal contract

こうこく まーけてぃんぐ、 でんき  でんし
advertising / marketing , electrical

はんどうたい、 じどうしゃ、 いがく やくがく
semiconductors, automobiles, medical pharmaceutical

ばいおてくのろじー 、 かんきょう、 しょくひん、
biotechnology, environmental, commodities (food)

かがく、 えねるぎー げんしりょく、  こうくう ぐんじ うちゅう
chemical, energy / nuclear power, aviation / military / space

せんい ふぁっしょん、 けんちく、  そのた
textiles / fashion, architecture, other

covered languages (pairs to Japanese of course)

えいご、 ふらんすご、 どいつご
English, French, German

いたりあご、 ちゅうごくご、
Italian, Chinese

かんこくご、 たいご、 そのた
Korean, Thai, other

As you can see, there are a lot of different fields of specialization you can enter into. The more specialized you are in a field, the more likely you will get work, and the higher you can charge for work. I myself have been more of a generalist. I'm translating a manga right now, for example. But my friends who are specialized in patent translation (特許翻訳 // とっきょほんやく), for example, are always swamped with offers for work and do very well for themselves.

Prepping to become a translator:

Ideally, you want to become certified with as many tests as you can to prove your level of quality. The JLPT level 1 (日本語能力試験1級 // にほんごのうりょくしけんいっきゅう) is cool for getting into grad school or working at a company.

Eventually, to compete with other bilinguals, you may want to become certified by translation associations. If you are a US citizen (or otherwise) the ATA(American Translation Association) is a very good place to start. The JAT(Japanese Association of Translators) is famous also. Another famous one for Japan is the JTF (Japan Translation Federation // 日本翻訳連盟 // にほんほんやくれんめい). You can download the JTF's free online journal here.

What's really cool is that associations like these hold workshops and networking parties often. Great chance to meet your prospective next client face-to-face and hang out with some fellow translators/interpreters.

Think of these links above as just starting points. There is a lot more we could get into with becoming a translator, like how to set your price (do you charge per hour, per 文字 (もじ // character) or per page?), do's and don'ts, etc.

For now, I would read up on the above. Do your homework. If you think translation would be a good fit for you, then all you have to do is just start taking the first steps: Research and apply.

This lesson was written by Martin, a guest contributor. Martin does Japanese translation and interpretation. He also blogs on www.mib-lte.com and co-authors a blog about Japan called Live Work Play Japan.

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