Translation 101

I was given a great opportunity to have a small group meeting with a Japanese → English translator yesterday.

I was by far the newbie-est of the group, the other attendee being a student in a translation program who has lived and worked in Japan.  The meeting was all I thought it’d be and more.  The translator was super helpful, honest, and informative.

I’m just delving into the world of translation and the idea of being a translator, so it’s all still new to me.  Anyways, for those interested…

Here are some highlights of what we discussed:

  • You can make a living as a translator.
    I’ve heard many people say it’s a side job, but it’s apparently quite possible to translate full time once you have the skill.  Woo hoo!
  • There are LOADS of different kinds of documents that need translation,
    and translators benefit from being naturally curious and interested in a wide variety of stuff.
  • The translator I spoke with learned Japanese largely from living in Japan and having private, native-speaker tutors.
    He had very little faith in classroom-based learning, citing someone (I can’t remember who/what) as saying that classroom-based language learning is effective for about 5% of the population.  This further cemented my own belief that I can learn Japanese outside of the classroom.  It was also a good reminder that if/when I teach, I’ll need to research and address the best methods of helping others learn a language.
  • Translators are usually paid by the word.
    So, speed and accuracy are huge factors in your success.  I had no idea!  Kinda nifty…
  • There’s debate about the usefulness of non-language-specific translation programs.
    While there are many commonalities between translating among different languages, every language presents its own set of unique challenges.  Some people think it’s important to have a program that focuses on just, say, Japanese to English translation.  But, lots of college/university translation programs don’t focus on a specific language.  I’m glad to find this out early on, as it’ll likely affect my decision of where to go for my education.
  • There’s a lot of support and help in the translation world.
    There are multiple ways that translators make connections with each other and offer support: from translation help forums to swapping and editing pieces to quick, “Hey, am I on the right track?” phone calls.  It’d be great to work in a field with this kind of support!
  • Reading patents, contracts, website localizations, and other documents in English is a great way to get a feel for how translated documents should read.
    Since a lot of what translators work on are documents like these, it’s an important (if not essential) thing to do.  It was recommended that we find some patents, read the “terms of use” box during software installations that nobody reads, and contrast and compare the Japanese and English versions of company websites.

Hoorah!  I learned a ton and it was really inspiring to talk to people who are in or entering the field!  I hope there are more meetings to come.

Are you a translator?  Interested in translation?  Got any words of wisdom?  Share them in the comments! 🙂


11 Responses to Translation 101

  1. Leigh says:

    It’s pretty important to know the general rules of translation as well. For example, if you translate written materials, you always translate TO your native language not from it. Speaking of course, is different.

    There’s a great scene in Big Dreams, Little Tokyo where we see the telephone-style game of translation from Japanese to English to Spanish. It shows how translation is more than just the meaning, it’s getting the point across. Good luck finding a school!

    • veganliz says:

      Ah yeah, great tidbit! I didn’t learn that translators usually only translate written materials into their native language until pretty recently. Thanks Leigh!

      *Runs off to find Big Dreams, Little Tokyo.*

  2. That is some downright jawesome stuff. As someone who’s decided that professional translation is something I’d seriously like to do, it’s refreshing to read a bit of encouraging information such as this.

    Personally, I’ve translated a handful of manga pages just for fun and my own personal amusement – mostly silly, short strips from Famitsu. I’m quickly finding that basic knowledge of the language (as well as familiarity with the material) is only a part of the required skill set necessary to translate effectively. In fact, one of the most critical skills (at least, when translating something such as manga) is probably the ability to write creatively in your native language. I swear, I must have spent 30 minutes (multiple times) trying to work out the best English counterparts for various Japanese phrases and idioms, even when I knew exactly what the phrase meant. I’m sure it’ll only get easier with practice, but it’s rather tricky yet! I must say it’s a lot of fun, though.

    Of course, the real KACHANG lies in the patents and technical documents you mentioned, rather than the fun stuff like manga and literature (汗) But you gotta start somewhere, right?

    • veganliz says:

      Thanks for sharing, Burrito! Great to hear from someone much further along 🙂

      Ayeh, it kills me that the demand for manga and literature translations is so low.

      Yup, best get reading our patents and contracts!


      • I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m all that much further along, honestly! I’ve really only just begun to test the waters, but I do believe the water is fiiiine.

        Slightly on topic: I recommend a book by the name of “Becoming a Translator: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Translation” by Douglas Robinson. Lots of interesting tidbits, as well as many anecdotes, conversations and letters from translators. I’m not sure if everything discussed in the book applies to the world of Japanese to English translation, but it was definitely an eye-opener to read through.

  3. e_dub_kendo says:

    Awesome Liz, thanks for this. Drop by sometime, I’ve been waiting for you…

  4. ta132 says:

    I’ve always been interested in translation. Personally I’m working on my translation skills now(written japanese text to English text).
    I’m trying to get into some free-lance translation at the moment. But since I don’t have experience in order to get a lot of jobs. The best thing to do is, work on your translation skills/japanese skills.
    Apparently if you can show your skills(translate let’s say a few pages from a novel,newspaper,article). It can possible get you employment, even if you don’t have experience per say in the field. I can easily translate conversations though, nowadays in japanese. Majority of the time I’m correct in translating, but still a lot of work to go.

    Anyhow, good post. Really interesting to read.

  5. Alex says:

    A big word of caution if you’re seriously considering lifelong employment as a translator. Practically all of the *actual* work available out there is non-glamorous boring businessy material. Even if you end up going manga, it may be fun, but translators are paid by the word (or character), and if you tally it up, a manga book has a few dozen pages of actual text. So doing a few pages a day is loads of fun, but having to churn out a stack of manga every week will dry you up to matter how exciting the content is.

    It is a constant struggle to make ends meet. Clients constantly try to push the price down. Ridiculously low offers abound:

    There is competition from translators in countries like India and China who will underbid you, then submit an awful translation, which you will be asked to “touch up” (in fact completely rewrite) at a fraction of what you charge for translation.

    Work from home sounds great (your own hours, no annoying coworkers and dank cubicles, no dressing code) until you do it for 5-ish years. “Setting your own hours” is a myth anyway; rather expect to work weekends and late nights because the client needs it yesterday and you don’t want to lose him.

    So not to rain on anyone’s parade, but I just wanted to say that while translating as a hobby is fun, it turns bleak really fast once it becomes a job. Do *not* make it your only occupation.

    • veganliz says:

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your input! I bet lots of readers haven’t heard of/thought of a lot of that. Are you a translator or have you tried the field out?

      Any field is going to have its ups and downs, of course, and I’m not expecting I will find only rainbows and sunshine in translation. The translator I spoke with did say that the bulk of translation work is technical stuff- legal documents, patents, contracts, etc. He said it’s advantageous to have a degree in a specialized field or to specialize in specific technical jargon. (For example, he suggested I use my degree in animal behavior to do research paper translations.) As a person who loves details, challenges, and patterns, I’m all about it. The translator also really seemed to love his job and the challenges of it, and has been doing it lucratively and full-time for 20 years or so. While he may be an exception to the rule, there he is.

      It’s important not to jump blindly into things, but at the same time, I think it’s just as important not to abandon efforts because of the possiblity that there will be challenges and compromises to be made. They’ll be there, wherever one goes and with whatever one chooses to do. Maybe the thing is to choose something that has challenges and compromises you’re willing to take on. 絶対に頑張ります!

      Thanks again for sharing your advice 🙂

  6. Wow, excellent post! I’ve always been interested in translation work. I learned a lot from this. Thanks!

  7. Pingback: Translation 101 (via Liz Learns Japanese) « Ta132's Blog

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