From talking to aspiring translators lately it feels like many want to know what the magic button is to become a translator. But, there is no magic button.
There’s no one way to gain experience. There’s no one company that you can apply to and have non-stop work for years. There’s no one book you can read to learn everything you need to learn.
You cannot become a translator in just a few months. It can take years to be established and even then work isn’t 100% guaranteed.
It takes effort, time, and a lot of luck to become a translator.
This article isn’t meant to discourage anyone from becoming a translator, but to give realistic expectations and some hopefully useful resources.
No One Way to Gain Experience
How do I get experience in translation?
You practice and learn.
I hated hearing that when I was starting because I didn’t know what I should be practicing. I didn’t know if what I was doing was useful or not. And I certainly didn’t know if I was doing it right.
But over the years I began to learn. Through trial and error and practice I finally saw that there’s no better way to learn, than to do.
So, how do you “practice” translation?
Pick something and translate it.
I think it’s easier when you have an easily achievable translation. This might be a translation competition, or a short story, or blogs, or news articles, or even a whole novel which you translate a chapter at a time. Something you’re interested in that’s short and easily obtainable in a week or a month or two.
And then, pick something else.
Keep doing this and slowly build up experience.
Practice is important to build up experience so you can learn how you translate. To shape your style of writing, as well as learn more about the type of translation you want to work in.
There is no one article which will explain the “right” or “wrong” way to translate something. You have to gauge it through experience and constant study.
How do you “learn” translation, then?
Learning is different from practicing translation because you want to expand your knowledge of translation as a whole package.
This means reading about 1) translation as a practice, 2) the translation industry, and 3) your source and target cultures.
1) Translation as a Practice
There are a few books which will teach you about translation theory. The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation by Yoko Hasegawa and Japanese–English Translation An Advanced Guide by Judy Wakabayashi are two popular ones for Japanese to English translation.
But you can also learn theory and how to translate in general by reading blogs, videos, podcasts, webinars etc. created by practicing translators (I recommend a few at the bottom of this article). There’s always something new circulating on social media (such as Twitter or LinkedIn), so it’s good to keep an eye out for interesting articles on translation and the industry as a whole.
You can also learn about translation as a practice by getting involved with the translation community. Network with people and listen to their stories. Maybe even find someone willing to give you feedback on your short translations. Or pay a professional for feedback if you need it.
2) The Translation Industry
How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator by Corinne McKay is a great book for new translators just entering the industry. This book covers topics such as website creation, networking, marketing yourself. It’s a well-rounded book on the basics of being a freelance translator.
3) Source and Target Cultures
Translation isn’t just about the words, but understanding the source culture and target culture of the subject(s) you’re translating.
Of course if you’re translating an Edo-period novel it helps to learn about Japan in the Edo-period, but it’s also important to learn about what the style of writing at the time might have been in English.
What are the expectations of audiences of the source material and what are the expectations of the target audience? What style of writing do you want to use? Why?
It’s important to keep up to date on current affairs, read books written on subjects that interest you, and learn more about the subject as a whole. You won’t know what will be useful information until you need it. So it helps to keep a constant interest in learning new things and slowly build that knowledge up over several years.
No One Person You Need to Know
Who do I need to know to be a successful translator?
No one person is going to tell you exactly what you need to do, but you can learn from a large number of people.
Becoming a translator takes a lots of work, and—as you can see above—you need to do all of the work to learn and improve. But people in the industry will be happy to answer specific questions, if you have any. (Professionals are also more likely to help people who have shown they’re willing to work hard themselves!)
Avoid generic questions like “how do I become a translator” or “how do I get experience”? And certainly don’t ask “can I ask you a question?”—that could be a potential trap for some translators and they may ignore you.
Instead ask “I just read XXX, do you have any recommendations for things to read next?” or “I think this phrase means this but I’m not sure, can you confirm”? These kinds of questions are often best asked in forums where a few people are able to give feedback.
You can find people on social media like LinkedIn and Twitter, and sometimes they’ll share information about Discord groups, or networking events, or other translation organizations where you can meet more people.
But do not network expecting to find work—network to make friends and learn.
No One Company to Apply To
What companies should I apply to?
What kinds of companies to pursue depends entirely on your personal experience, your knowledge, and expertise.
If you’re interested in light novel translation then there’s no point applying to an agency that specializes in technical translation. But if you have experience in technical writing, or have a degree in technical work, then applying to those agencies could be a good avenue to pursue while also looking at light novels.
How do you find potential clients?
If you look up translators who already work in fields you’re interested in, then you can see what companies they work/have worked with. This is a good way to find potential clients beyond just a Google search.
Again, it takes a lot of work to find potential clients, research them, find appropriate contact information, create a unique resume and cover e-mail for them, and then ask them to take their translation tests.
Finding the right potential clients for you, creating resumes for different industries, applying for translation tests, taking tests, all takes a lot of effort and time. So be prepared to put the work in!
No Magic Button
There is no one way to become a translator. It’s entirely dependent upon you, your experience, skills, interests, what you do to gain experience and work, and luck.
In my article How to Become a Japanese Translator I suggest finding work elsewhere before moving into translation. I still stand by this advice for the reasons I outline in the article.
It really helps to have another job or money to support you while you start out. Whether you’re in school, or a post-graduate program like JET, or working for a company, you need to give yourself the space and time to learn by doing. Then build up the experience slowly and then slowly apply to companies.
You can’t become a translator over night—it takes a lot of work and time.
But if you’re passionate about it, then you can turn it into a career.
Resources for Aspiring Translators
Aozora Bunko – Short stories that are out of copyright. Great literary translation practice.
Translation Competitions – List of English to Japanese translation competitions for aspiring translators.
Pretty Translator Sarah Moon – YouTube channel by Sarah Moon with videos on manga/anime/light novel translation.
Freelanceverse – Adrian Probst – YouTube channel by Adrian Probst with videos on translation industry and how to be a freelancer.
Smart Habits for Translators – Podcast with tips on how to build smart habits as a freelance translator.
Awesome Game Localization Blogs You Should Read – A list of blogs about game localization.
Link Round-ups – Collections of links to interesting articles I’ve found over the years.
Other Useful Articles
Interviews With Localizers – Series of interviews with professionals about how they started and what they do.