I run a website all about study Japanese and recently wrote How to Become a Japanese Translator for one of my readers. While writing it I came to the realization that the best way to become a Japanese translator… was to not become one.
This may seem a little backwards but hear me out. It seems to me that people who go directly into translation (especially freelance), without experience or training in another field, or without experience working in Japan, tend to struggle to succeed as translators.
Why You Shouldn’t Become a Translator (…At First)
Translation isn’t just about knowing 2 languages. It’s about understanding them both to a near native level. You at least need to know a particular topic in minute detail… in both languages.
This isn’t just a matter of studying to JLPT N1 level either (I know an excellent translators who only has N3). It’s about using and interacting with a topic in your target and source language on a daily basis.
And it’s not just the language aspect, but the business side of translation that’s important. (Which I found out the hard way after my MA in Translation.) How to interact with clients/agencies and how they work. How to manage finances, write invoices, file taxes. How to get work in the first place!
Translators working in-house don’t have this issue so much but they still need extra skills like project management, logistics, good communication (experience working in an office).
People who jump right into translation without a secondary field of expertise and without knowing the business process seem to really struggle*.
*This is a little similar to a conversation that came up in Japanese Bilingual Group recently which went along the lines of “Japanese language is personally rewarding, but is pretty much useless for a career unless you specialize in something else.”
So You’re Saying I Shouldn’t Become a Translator?
I think becoming a translator is a fantastically rewarding career… when it works out. But the key is planning in the long run to make sure it does work out.
From my own experience and talking with other translators, it’s clear that it’s very important for someone who’s studying Japanese to work and/or study in another field, as well as to work in Japan.
A Specialized Field
One option is to study a specialized career. Medical, law, engineering are all big fields. But if they’re not your cup of tea there wouldn’t be much point forcing yourself to learn them.
What do you enjoy? Did you know there are people who translate marketing? Websites? Video games? Novels? – Pick a subject that interests you and you’d enjoy working on and learning about in both languages.
Bilingual engineers and computing experts (programmers, but also websites and UX/UI) are two incredibly sought after fields. This is evident just looking at the job postings on websites like Gaijin Pot and Career Cross.*
(*If you’re about to go to college or postgraduate and want to use Japanese with work, I suggest looking at Gaijin Pot and Career Cross to get an idea of skills are in demand. Or even go through LinkedIn to look up people in your field of interest and see or ask others how they got to where they are.)
The next trick is to get a job in your field of specialization. You don’t even have to be using Japanese! But gaining experience in that area is very important.
Japanese Language Specialization
Another option for those who are taking a degree in Japanese, International Relations, etc., (something not scientific or computer based), is to enroll in the JET program.
The JET program is for university graduates who want to live and work in Japan. You can either teach English or, if you have the language skills, become a coordinator of international relations for the Japanese government.
I want to be a translator, why would I become a teacher? – The JET program is an incredibly rewarding career. Working as a teacher means you can use your Japanese on a daily basis at work and outside it. It teaches you the subtleties of the language, people’s relationships and work/life interactions.
It also gets you in Japan. Once you have your foot in the door in Japan it’s a lot easier to get hired for another position. In no way should you disregard your teaching because it’s a stepping stone to something else. Teaching English can be incredibly rewarding for yourself and your students if you put the effort in. (It’s not an excuse to be in Japan so you can travel or go to concerts all the time!)
I discussed this in more detail on How to Become a Japanese Translator, but I know many successful business people and translators who all worked as an English teacher in Japan for a number of years.
For those who are interested I discuss in more detail how to become a Japanese translator here: How to Become a Japanese Translator. (Including how to train yourself in translation, build up your reputation/business, and useful links to other articles.)
But for now, I really think that people who are interested in becoming translators should focus on gaining knowledge in a specialty and/or get work in Japan.
It’s not just a matter of specializing but also working with Japanese and English on a daily basis so you can understand how both languages are used in specific contexts.
What do you think?