Novice and aspiring translators are often hit with this seemingly impassable wall when they start. You may think Japanese-English translation is doable as long as you know Japanese, but it’s not that simple…
Translation is a skill separate from Japanese language ability. Of course they tie in, you cannot translate if you do not understand the source. However, translation is a lot more than just knowing Japanese.
Translation is understanding culture and language; knowing how language is used depending on the context; good English writing abilities; being able to self-edit; knowing what your pitfalls are and how to avoid them, etc. Not to mention the sheer amount of business and marketing know-how you need to get work in the first place.
But we’re focusing on translation as a skill in this article.
Many aspiring translators may think they need to go to school. That’s one way, but you do not have to: Masters programs or certificates are not for everyone.
And even if you have the education you still have to constantly train and teach yourself Japanese-English translation.
I am always looking for new ways to hone my skills. Whether in English writing or editing, Japanese comprehension, understanding a subject matter, or getting a new skill. All of these are key to improving translation and perfecting the craft.
The following eight tips are just a few tricks I’ve picked up (and try to do) to improve my own translation skills.
Read Books and Blogs on Translation & Writing
Learning from others more experienced than you is key to getting good at translation. It’s why education is often seen as a good choice. But you don’t have to go to school to learn from someone else.
There are many books and blogs written by experienced translators and writers whose knowledge is unfathomably useful.
My top recommended books can be found in Book Recommendations for Japanese English Translators.
But my top favourites will always be:
- The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation by Yoko Hasegawa
- How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator by Corinne McKay
- The 10% Solution by Ken Rand
My top recommended blogs on translation are:
- Thoughts on Translation
- The Translator’s Teacup (especially for beginner translators)
- Make a Living Writing (advice for writers that can be applied to freelance translating)
- Koipun (not a translation blog but inspiring to improve Japanese)
Then there are always new blog posts, articles, podcasts, etc., on translation, localization, editing, writing, freelancing, etc.
Whenever I find a good article on Twitter or somewhere else I add it to my growing “Pocket” list (which saves all my urls). I add any new ones to a LinkRoundup when I can (which isn’t often) but there is lots of great reading to be found outside of “official” blogs. It helps to keep an eye out for them!
Practice with Short 300-500 Character Translations
I can’t remember where I heard this, but I will always remember: “You can’t call yourself an expert on a subject until you’ve translated 300-500 word on that subject 50 times.”
I still cannot call myself an “expert” in any subject as I’m still learning a lot of new things. However, this exercise really helps!
The point is that you need to do frequent practices on one subject from a variety of resources. This exposes you to a variety of language and phrases used in both languages in different scenarios, even if the subject is the same!
The key with this practice technique is not to pump them out as quickly as you can. But to treat each translation as if you were translating it for a client.
It really helps to go back and look at some older translations and see if you’d translate it differently. Or even re-translate something.
Re-Translate Something (You Translated Before -> Compare Old Translation)
It can be a little scary, but find an old translation and try re-translating it. Then compare how you did things differently.
I say it’s scary because I honestly shy away from my older translations (they can be so bad!). But it really does help to go back.
You can do this either two ways:
- Find the source text and translate it without looking at your old translation.
- Read through your older translation, think about how to improve it, then use the source text to re-translate it.
The first can be a good way to see how your approach to a translation has changed.
The second is great for making you think critically about what makes a good translation. Forcing you to re-consider your own approach to a translation.
And believe me, improvements can always be made, even by experience translators!
Translate the Same Text in Different Ways
One fun exercise, especially for creative translations, is to get a short passage and translate it in different ways.
If you pick a piece of dialogue you could apply different accents to different characters. Try and think about the wording, turns of phrase, attitude. It’s not just a matter of spelling but characterization.
I tried this myself a while ago and have been meaning to do it again.
You can also try this with descriptive text. Using different tones for the overall narrative.
Try first person vs third person narrative. Try extremely short descriptions then the longest most flowery descriptions possible.
This really is an exercise in creativity, and it’s a lot harder than you might think!
Compare Your Translation
A good practice exercise is to translate something that has already been translated, then compare your translation to the official one. It doesn’t have to be a whole book, a page is good enough.
Doing so can help you pin point stuff you didn’t understand; how you could word something better; or even what you think you did better than the author!
It’s important to remember the official translation isn’t the only was something can be translated.
Some classic pieces of literature have been translated multiple times officially because different translators want to work them. And each translator takes a different approach. (The most recent translation of the Odyssey got a lot of buzz because as a woman Emily Wilson took a very different approach compared to her male colleagues.)
I was inspired by Jenae Spry’s article The Interpreter Phenomenon for this exercise. Jenae says that her experience as an interpreter helped her speed up her translation. She now conducts most of her translations through sight translation, the converts her words into text using dictation software.
Sight translation is when you read a text, then say the translation aloud. No writing is involved. Although you can write a few notes for unknown words and break up sentences in the source text if you wish.
This is a great exercise for coming up with a translation on the spot, rather than mulling over it too much. It also helps with accuracy as you need to be accurate with reflecting the original meaning.
- Read the whole text so you understand the overall meaning.
- Then translate sentence by sentence out loud.
- If a sentence is too long, break it up into smaller sentences.
(Of course sight translation in a professional capacity is more complicated than this, but this is just an exercise.)
Translate Without A Dictionary
Many beginners think professional translators don’t need a dictionary. But that’s a lie. Every translator worth their salt needs a dictionary. Multiple dictionaries! (For example JP-EN, JP-JP and EN-EN.)
But trying to translate something without a dictionary can be a great exercise to improve Japanese and English comprehension.
Try it with something short and see how you do! Then look up the terms you were stuck on and trying to think of a better way to translate what you just worked on.
Keeping track of the terms you didn’t know or new meanings/uses for words, can be great to file away for later. You never know when a word or phrase or new piece of knowledge will come in handy!
Edit Someone Else’s Translation
One of the best exercises I’ve done is edit someone else’s translation.
I am no where near good enough to be an editor in a professional capacity. But I do know the key to editing is not to change the text to how you’d translate it, but to make the current translation read better.
This is a great exercise in how can you make a text read well without changing the meaning or words?
Now this does mean the wording needs changing a little, but if a translator used “spluttered” then they may have used it for a reason. And changing it to “coughed” without good reason is not what an editor should be doing. Which brings me to another point…
If you do need to change something, you better have a good reason for it! (I.e consistency.)
Editing someone else’s work is great for thinking about what makes a translation read well?
How do other people tackle translating certain texts?
What can you learn from other people? Or if you’re editing a beginner and helping them; What can you teach them about translation?
Translators often don’t think about how or why they translate certain things. But it helps to be reflective in this way!
So try editing something already published, or some fan work. Work with another translator on a project. Talk to people, bounce ideas off of them. Mentor an aspiring translator and learn from them as you teach them.
We Are Always Learning
One of the things I enjoy the most about translation is that we are always learning.
Not just languages but usages and turns of phrase. Translation techniques and skills to become faster, more accurate, more witty. Learning how to become better writers.
And the great thing is you can learn from others as much as you can learn from yourself.
I’ve tried a number of the exercises listed above, but even I need to practice more. Because we are always learning.