In the current article, I’d like to talk about translation work in Japan. I’m a patent translator, and I’ve been doing this for the past seven years. I also, on a part-time and freelance basis, translate court documents (mainly divorce translations (miserable work; more below)) and advertising translations (for Tokyu Hands) (more about this below, too), and I was actually hired a few years ago to do financial translations for a major financial institution in Tokyo (I turned that job down (also more about that below)). I also interviewed with a major publisher to do novel translations (that didn’t work out (also more below)). Anyway, I’m trying to establish my bona fides as a translator so that you can read this article with the confidence that an established and reputable translator is giving you advice.
The Japanese language, though it is essentially only used in Japan, is still a very important language. Just looking at patent applications (and patents are a good gauge of how important a language is in terms of economy and technology), the Japan Patent Office is in the top five patent offices in the world (with the United States Patent Office being number 1, the European Patent Office being number 2, and (I think) the JPO being number 3, the Chinese Patent Office being number 4, and the Korean Patent Office being number 5 (followed by Taiwan and then everywhere else pretty much not mattering at all)). That is, even though the Japanese language is only spoken by 130 million people or so, it is a very important language in terms of technology and economy, far surpassing Spanish and Arabic, both of which are spoken by an enormously larger number of people. Also, the Japanese language is RADICALLY DIFFERENT from almost every language and is very difficult (even for native speakers) to learn, and moreover, the average English level of Japanese people is quite low, so here, we have a real niche market: a valuable language that few foreigners can master, coupled with a low English level of the native speakers.
What are the Different Types of Translator Jobs in Japan?
If I had to categorize types of Japanese to English translation jobs, as far as I can tell, there are the following categories (listed in the order of the lowest remuneration to the highest).
Manga/Novels/Video Games/Movie Subtitles
This is the field EVERYONE wants to get into. Many foreigners who come to Japan originally have an interest in manga (Japanese comics), or novels, or video games, and believe they can successfully make a go in this field. I hate to be a wet blanket, but wet blanket I will be. To begin with, of all translation fields, this field has the lowest remuneration. The reason is that no particular special knowledge is needed for this field. Also, I submit that this field is actually quite difficult. When translating patents, for example, as long as the meaning of the sentence is accurately conveyed, the sentence can be weird as hell. To give one example of novel translations, the following sentence is from a Japanese novel I am currently reading: “21日の土曜日は、朝から降り出した雨がそのまま夜まで続いた。拓也はマンションから少し離れたところにある電話ボックスの脇に車を止め、康子が帰ってくるはずの道に目を向けていた.” This is my (admittedly) perfunctory translation: “On Saturday the 21st, the rain that had started from the morning continued until the night. Takuya stopped his car next to a phone booth located a small distance from the condominium, and focused his eyes on the street from which Yasuko was certain to come home.” This is what we call an 意訳 (iyaku), meaning a loose translation to sound more natural (compared with a 直訳 (chokuyaku) (literal translation)). A literal translation of this, according to google translation (and that is what google translation does, which is why it can give some pretty odd translations) is as follows: “On the 21st Saturday, the rain that came out of the morning continued as it was until the night. Takuya stopped the car at the side of the telephone box a little away from the apartment and was turning his eyes towards the way Kako would be coming back.” When translating novels and literature, you need to be able to write beautiful sentences that accurately reflect the original Japanese, but with more technical Japanese, as long as the meaning is accurately reflected, it doesn’t matter if the translated sentence sounds a bit strange. Also, these fields are VERY HEAVILY protected as far as I can tell. It seems impossible to get into these fields without some connection, and even if you do, those who make a living just off these fields seem pretty limited. I interviewed to do novel translations with Shuueisha, a major Japanese publisher, several years ago, and they passed on me. I suspect the reason is that, as I said before, the requirement is not only an accurate translation but a beautiful sentence that native speakers can appreciate. I like to think I can write a clear English sentence, but writing a clear, grammatical sentence and writing a beautiful sentence that inspires people are two very different things. Also, this is the lowest paid field, so making a living off of this is difficult.
This is a field with which I do have experience. On a freelance basis, I’ve translated catch-copies for Tokyu Hands, a major Japanese department store. This is also surprisingly difficult. With catch-copies, the client usually sets a ton of conditions. For example, a typical request will be “please convey the following Japanese…..with two or three English words AT MOST using the term….[.]” This is surprisingly difficult, especially for people like me who are not creatively gifted in this area. On an unrelated note, this is the one field of translation I refuse to do sober; I only do this when I have a few drinks under my belt, which appears to help the creative side of my brain (with the following more technical fields, not only should you abstain from drinking, you shouldn’t even do these when you’re tired or sleepy).
I interviewed and offered a job by a major Japanese financial firm two years ago, but when I was formally offered the job, I turned it down, because during the process of applying for this job, my personal situation changed quite a bit and I couldn’t take on this job (by the way, in conservative Japanese companies, turning down a job offer is almost criminal; the response I got from this company was cold beyond belief, and not only did I burn any possible bridges with this company, I also put my friend who works there who introduced me into some hot water (more about corporate Japan below)). This is a technical field, meaning you need to know a bit a good bit about economics, interest rates, stocks, bonds, futures and the like to translate competently in this field, but compared with the following technical fields, this level of special knowledge can be obtained by the average person. In terms of remuneration, if you get on with a major firm, I think it pays pretty well (I didn’t turn this job down because of the money, for sure).
Now we are getting into the pretty technical fields. For years, I’ve done divorce translations on a freelance basis. When I was a young man, I planned on becoming a lawyer, so I majored in what could be considered “pre-law,” so I was a bit familiar with legalese terms, but if you have no experience with legal concepts, this field is technical in the sense that without a basic understanding of law, this may be difficult. This is made even more difficult because Japanese law can be quite different. Also, having spent years translating divorce documents, I can tell you, aside from being a difficult field, it is also depressing beyond belief. I haven’t done any of this work in 2018, and I think I’m a happier person because of it. The same applies to medical translations concerning technical knowledge. Without a decent understanding of the medicinal fields, this may prove difficult.
Here, we dive into the deep end of technical translations. To begin with, in order to get a patent, one of the most fundamental requirements is that the invention is novel (shinkisei), meaning by definition, you are dealing with cutting edge technology. Without a technical background, this is a really difficult field to get into. I was a liberal arts major and absolutely suck at all things technical, so this field is not impossible to get into for non-technical people, but I can tell you, not having a technical background can be a major hindrance at times. Let’s have a look at the following example.
In Present Invention 5, the “controller module” (“control means” in the Cited Invention) “generates four phase-shift modulation signals with phase shifts of 45 degrees, 90 degrees, 135 degrees, and 180 degrees,” whereas in the Cited Invention, while it can be said that “a plurality of phase-shift modulation signals is generated,” the point of “generating four phase-shift modulation signals” is not defined.
This is a pretty straightforward sentence in the patent field, and I would like to list a more complicated example to show you how confusing patent language can be, but suffice to say, if you do not have VERY strong reading skills in both languages coupled with a decent technical background, this is a very hard field to be successful in.
Simply put, the more technical the translation, the better the pay, with patent translations and medical translation paying the best, whereas, from my understanding, it is almost impossible to eat off of novel translations (unless you are REALLY good and you exclusively translate all Murakami novels or something). This can be misleading because as I mentioned above, novel translations and the like can sometimes be far more difficult than technical translations. This is because, as mentioned, with technical translations, as long as the TECHNICAL meaning is correct and can be understood, you can get away with some pretty awkward sentences (e.g. in the technical field of epitaxial growth, those skilled in the art could have, as appropriate, applied the art disclosed or suggested in Citation 2 to the invention described in Citation 1, and when doing so, the optimization of the numerical range indicated above would have been within the normal creative abilities of those skilled in the art), whereas such verbosity would put the reader to sleep with novel translations.
What You Should Do First to Become a Translator in Japan
Learn to read. You will be reading Japanese and then translating it into your own language. The Japanese language is difficult, and especially when it comes to reading, it is VERY difficult. Without learning to read, you will never be able to work as a translator in any of the abovementioned fields. Next, take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), preferably level one. A few years ago, I was in charge of hiring a new translator for my company, and the number of applications we received was staggering. We HAD to filter them somehow, so we threw out all applications that did not have “JLPT Level 1.” Also, JLPT is a pretty decent indicator that a person is good at Japanese. I have never met anyone with JLPT level 1 who was bad at Japanese. Also, when applying for jobs, companies have to filter applications, and not only from my experiences, from what I have heard from other people too, without JLPT qualifications, your application will likely not be read. JLPT level 1 is not easy, but trust me, once you get it, you will be able to read Japanese to the level where working as a translator is possible. Notice, I said “is possible”; I don’t think this is necessarily enough. I think once you learn to read Japanese well enough to pass this test, I think you should start reading Japanese as a hobby, in the form of novels or manga or whatever. Studying and learning the language formally are important, but once you reach this level, I think the best thing you can do to truly master the language is to engage with it like a native speaker does (that is, watch TV, read books, attend live events, talk to many people etc.). Also, it should be noted that this takes time. It took me three years of living in Japan and studying every day to pass JLPT 1 (and this is actually pretty fast compared with most people), and I know people who have lived in Japan for twenty years who could not pass even JLPT level 2 or 3. Most foreigners come to Japan with zero Japanese language skills. In previous articles, I have written that Japanese is not as hard as some people think it is; well, allow me to qualify that statement: learning to speak Japanese to a conversational level is not all that difficult, BUT learning to read it competently, especially if you are starting from zero, is QUITE DIFFICULT. It’s not impossible, of course, as evidenced by people like me and the other 130 million Japanese people who read and write this language. However, if you are serious about getting involved in translation work, you absolutely have to learn how to read (as a rule of thumb, if it is difficult for you to read a newspaper or novel intended for Japanese adults, you cannot read well enough to do any meaningful translation work).
Wow, I still have a lot to say about this topic, so in my next article, I will talk more about becoming a translator.
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