Are you studying Japanese and interested in translation? But you have no idea how to translate something from Japanese into English? This article on translating Japanese for beginners is for you!
A few years ago I completed an MA in Theory and Practice of Translation at SOAS, London. At the time I wrote about how to translate Japanese to English for beginners. However, my MA was surprisingly not that good for teaching you translation and I had to teach myself a lot over the years.
Now I’m taking an evening class in Translation and Interpretation at a local University and it’s 100% better than the MA program. So I decided to add to the previous article on translating Japanese for beginners.
This article will build on things mentioned in previous translation articles. You can see a complete list of them on my Japanese language website: Japanese Talk Online – Articles on Translation
This article is for those interested in translating Japanese, although it can also be applied to translating other languages too.
It’s for beginners to teach themselves translation and practice with until they can work for clients.
The Basic Skills You Need
- JLPT N3-N1
- A passion for Japanese and English
- An interest in non-language subjects
- The drive to learn new things
The Translation Process
My article Translating from Japanese to English for Beginners loosely described the translation process for people who want to teach themselves Japanese. We’re going to go into a little more detail here.
The translation process can be broken down into the following 10 steps (although it’s slightly different in a professional situation, depending on the person, client and project):
The following is a breakdown with advice for beginners who are practicing their translations, not for when you’re working for a company to a deadline.
Don’t start translating yet!
First you need to read the original in full. Doesn’t matter if it’s an short article or a novel, you should read the whole thing.
Make a note of or make Japanese words you don’t know or are unsure of (but don’t look them up – try and read the whole thing without stopping). When you’ve finished reading it look up some of the key words you were unsure of and write them down. Then read it again to make sure you’ve understood it all.
You should take a break and read it again if you have the time (3rd time’s the charm), just to make extra sure you’ve understood the original.
You should then think about what the most appropriate language would be for the audience for that type of text. A novel in English will have a very different style of language compared to a scientific or news article (news articles types have varying language too).
Glossaries (Term Bases)
I mentioned that as you read you should make a note of words you didn’t understand. Once you’ve read through the text once you should put that vocabulary into a personal glossary and look up everything you don’t understand (words, sentences).
Having all this information in a spreadsheet or online term base will help you greatly when you need to look up these words again. Whether in your current or later translation projects.
This is where programs specifically designed for translators come in handy, but if you’re a beginner who’s learning to translate then just having a spreadsheet or using a program like termbases can be a great start. – A term base is like a personal dictionary that’s specific to the language you’re using.
Make a note of ‘official’ translations in dictionaries, but also of the term you used in your translation. These may change depending on the context.
Don’t just use Japanese-English directories either, use English-English dictionaries so you can get a full understanding of a word and perhaps it’s synonyms.
Research is also important. Not just for looking up the right meanings for words/sentences, but for the subject you’re working with.
If you’re translating something about touring Aso National Park in Japan, it helps to look up information about that area. Not sure what someone is saying? Google it or the subject to get an idea.
I had to translate a video game that had a character who played volleyball once. As a result I researched everything to do with volleyball, although mostly the positions and how they interacted with one another.
A GREAT way to look up a noun you’re not familiar with is to google image search it. Let’s say you come across the word もんじゃ焼き and you look it up in the dictionary: “savoury pancake with various fillings, thinner than okonomiyaki”. But this doesn’t give you a clear image of WHAT it it. If you google search you’ll get a better idea and can choose the best wording depending on the context.
Google image searching is great for places, people and really culturally specific things.
DO NOT ASSUME TRANSLATIONS – Always double check (even if you’re 90% sure)!
Translate & Format
Now you’ve read the source text a few times and researched the subject it’s time to start translating! If you’ve looked up everything you need to then this should be fairly easy.
Constantly compare the source text with your translation. Make sure you don’t skip or mistranslate something. Reading it out loud as you go along also helps.
Try to keep the formatting of the translation consistent with the formatting of the source. If it’s an article, for example, then try to use similar font including size, bold, links, images etc. If it’s a manga translation there’s often a set style guide to help the proofreader/typesetter match the translation to the right bubbles.
Maintaining formatting is a good habit overall just because it makes things easier for the people who will be using your translation.
Take a break!
Edit for Style & Accuracy
Your translation isn’t done yet! It needs editing.
This is why taking a break is important. Give yourself at least a day before you go back to your translation. If you jump on the editing right away you may miss something that should be blindingly obvious.
Read it out loud to yourself and/or have a program read it back to you. This will help you pick out areas that might not read right in English, as well as any spelling mistakes that slipped past spellcheck.
Depending on the text (more creative pieces) you CAN change the structure of a sentence. Often Japanese sentences are really long with the important information at the end. I think it varies from translator to translator and text to text, but these can be tackled in various ways and sticking to the original sentence structure is not always the best way.
Check the translation with the original. Check (again) that you haven’t mistranslated or missed anything out!
Give yourself another break.
Proofreading is focusing a lot more on spelling and grammatical errors. Focus on the English and make sure it reads like it hasn’t been translated at all.
If this is just a practice translation (which you’re not being paid for and haven’t signed a non-disclosure agreement for) then you can get a friend to proofread it for you too. If they’re good they’ll be strict and point out areas where you should improve your English.
Delivery & Feedback
This isn’t so big if you’re just practicing. If you’ve had a friend proofread it then pretend they’re your client and ask for feedback.
If you’re getting paid to do a translation then you should defiantly deliver the translation before the deadline (obviously). It’s important to provide your client with a high quality translation and high quality service. But you can also ask for feedback from them. Sometimes they’ll send some, sometimes they won’t (they may not even reply). If they’re a big company they’re probably swamped so don’t be too put out if they don’t get back to you.
On Becoming a Literary Translator by John Jenson has a FANTASTIC breakdown of the translation process. He compares how this process is different between literary and ‘conventional’ translation. It’s a MUST READ!
What are you interested in? What do you love to do in your spare time?
Do you enjoy programming and/or taking computers apart? How about reading articles on birds or psychology or culture? Do you like to read the news? Or reading manga/comics and/or novels?
There is a huge list of things you could specialize in and all professional translators say how it’s important to pick something you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what money might be involved in something, if you can’t stand doing it then there’s no point.
Personally I love video games and novels. And although I am working on translating both of these, I also enjoy tourism, Japanese culture and SEO and want to combine these into website translation and advertising. To do this I’m taking an online class through Coursera in SEO.
Expand Your Knowledge
You do not need a degree in the field you want to translate! Many translators are self-taught in the specializations they work in. This includes medical, legal, and technical fields! Often it’s a matter of being interested enough that you read a LOT about the subject (in BOTH languages), buy field specific dictionaries, and build up your own glossaries.
It certainly helps to have worked in a specific area and/or to live and work in Japan. But you don’t HAVE to. (I talk about how working in a specific field or living in Japan helps in How to Become a Japanese Translator.)
This is why you need to have a drive to learn new things. And it’s not just a matter of reading about your specializations…
One lecturer told me “a translator is a reader”. A good translator will always be looking at reading more about the world around them. Not just reading more in their specialization (which you should do), but also the news, the translation industry and articles by other translators.
Reading and learning more is fun, teaches you things you might not expect, and can help your translations overall. Not just in your understanding of the source text, but your understanding of how your target language is used.
Some great sites for learning new things and/or deepening your knowledge of areas you’re interested in:
Practice, Practice, Practice
Read more, learn more and practice more.
Someone once told me: “Don’t charge people for your translation until you’ve done at least 30 pieces that are at least 500 words in length on that subject.”
If it’s something you enjoy then you won’t have to worry about translating the same subject and reading more about it!
Sometimes it’s hard to find the drive to practice. But if you’re interested and want to try it out give it a go? You could start with a short NHK News article on a subject you’re interested in and post it on facebook for your friends?
Starting by translating just a little every day builds up into a lot over time (just like studying Japanese).
- ATA (American Translators Association) Online Magazine
- How to Become a Japanese Translator
- From Student to Translator
- Translation for Beginners – Japanese Translation Agencies