Happy International Translation Day!
Just like any career, a career in translation can be rewarding and exhausting. You have your highs and your lows. Your days when you feel like you’ve created the best piece ever, and the days when you wonder why you even got in this industry in the first place. But even still, it’s a special industry to work in.
The work is wide and varied. It’s engaging, technical, creative, and challenging, and the people in the community are wonderful.
I love it and if you’re interested in a career in Japanese to English media translation but are a little lost, then this is the post for you! Hopefully these help.
This FAQ focuses on questions for:
- Aspiring/new translators
- Japanese to English translation
- Entertainment and media translation
– Japanese Ability –
Do I need JLPT N1?
You do not need the JLPT N1 certificate to be a Japanese translator. In fact, you don’t need any certificate!
I would say having JLPT N2 equivalent Japanese ability is a good ballpark to aim for, but you still don’t need proof that you passed the exam.
Is a JLPT certificate useful for your resume? Yes. It’s great for proving you have a high command of Japanese.
But passing translation tests is more important. These are provided by a potential client when you apply to their company. They prove that you have the Japanese and translation skills required and are a good fit for their company.
My Japanese is X level, how can I become a translator?
If your Japanese language ability is under JLPT N2 or equivalent, then I recommend you spend a few years focusing on your Japanese studies to improve fluency.
For translators the most important skill is reading comprehension, so I highly recommend you read a lot of novels and books! A wide variety can’t hurt either as they expose you to not just Japanese language, but different writing styles, idioms, and turns of phrase.
Translation ability isn’t only about Japanese language skills though! Polishing your English writing (creative, copywriting, etc.) skills as you study Japanese will help make the transition to translator a lot easier once your Japanese is at a good level.
– Translation Ability –
Do I need a degree in translation to be a professional translator?
They can help open doors, but can be very expensive door stops.
Here’s an article that goes into more detail on why you don’t need a translation degree, as well as other education options for translation: What Qualifications Do I Need to Become a Translator?
How do I become a certified translator?
Entertainment and media translators do not need to be certified. Certification doesn’t impact entertainment translation at all because it’s more creative work.
Certification for translators are mostly for business and legal translations, but even then not every translator is certified!
If you are interested in certification for business translation the I suggest you look at the American Translation Association certificate program for more information.
How do I study translation?
Practice. Improve. Practice. Improve. You never stop learning how to translate and improve your own translation.
First, read a wide variety of other people’s translations, as well as texts in your own native language.
As for resources specifically on translation skills, there are lots of resources online and in book form!
Here are some books to get you started: Book Recommendations for Japanese English Translators
And some articles I’ve written with tips on improving translation skills: Articles on Improving Translation Skills
Can I translate Japanese to English if my native language isn’t English?
Yes! If your English ability is native level then you can translate into English.
What matters most to companies is being able to pass their translation tests.
– Technology and Tools –
Do I need to know computer aided translation (CAT) tools?
Depends on what field of translation you go into!
If you want to be a manga, light novel, or literary translator then CAT tools will be completely useless.
If you want to be a video game translator then knowing how to use at least one CAT tool can help you. MemoQ and Memsource are the two main CAT tools used for game localization. You can find free online tutorials and here are a few:
A lot of translators research how to use a specific CAT tool once they have a project that requires it. But it can never hurt to get an idea of how they work then learn properly on the job.
Note: You never, ever need to buy a CAT tool for yourself! If a translation agency needs you to use one, they will provide you with a temporary license for the duration of that project.
What tools do translators use the most?
Japanese to English entertainment translators will mostly use Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. (Unless they’re using a CAT tool for video games.)
– Translation Industry –
How do I break into the industry? / How do I find work?
This is the biggest and most difficult question!
As I discussed in How to Get into Video Game Localization, every single person’s route into translation is different!
But here are some quick tips:
- Create translator resumes for each of your specialties.
- Look everywhere for possible clients.
- Do your research and focus on particular clients.
- Don’t spam hundreds of people with generic messages / non-specific questions!
- Connect with and make friends with industry people.
More details on these can be found in Freelance Entertainment Translators: Finding Clients, Writing Cover e-mails, Resumes.
Should I make a portfolio? What kind of content should I put on it?
You do not need to make a portfolio of translation samples. If anything, you shouldn’t!
You simply can’t due to the legality of sharing either client’s text or fan translated text. Even if you translate a text the translation does not belong to you but the person who bought the rights to translate said text.
Translators will instead provide possible clients with translator resumes. These are different from regular resumes, which are used to apply to in-house jobs. With translation resumes you are selling your services, specialties, and skills. You can list projects worked on but often a list of specialties and experience works best.
Should I start in-house or freelance?
For entertainment translation it is incredibly difficult to start working in-house as a translator.
Manga/light novel publishers and novel publishers do not tend to hire in-house translators. They will hire project managers and editors though. Some publishers, such as Penguin Random House hire editor interns for a few months, which can be a good foot in the door. Although you often have to be in that location, which is difficult for many.
For video game companies the bar for in-house translator is often very high and, again, often extra restricting to people due to the need to move to the city the company is based in. If you would like to work in-house for a video game company I suggest taking a look at job listings for a few companies, make a note of the requirements and use those as long-term goals.
This article also might help in terms of video games: How to Get into Video Game Localization
Update: Jan Mitsuko Cash has a newsletter where she shares job listings for freelance and in-house work.
The majority of entertainment translators start as freelance translators, often part-time at first then full-time once they have enough clients. If you want to be a freelance entertainment translator then I highly recommend having a second job, savings, or support from a partner/family to keep you afloat for the first 8-12 months until you have enough stable clients.
How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator is a great book for all aspiring freelance translators.
It’s also important to know that even a lot of professional media translators have full time jobs and then translate on the side because media translation pays so poorly.
I know some professional translators who subsidize their media translation by teaching English, teaching at universities, working in call centers, and translating other (better paying) documents such as legal or business.
However, after all that, I highly recommend new graduates get work experience working elsewhere before becoming translators. Something related to Japan or to the field you want to work in in a related field before moving to translation because freelance translation also involves running your own business.
I explain this more in How to Become a Japanese Translator.
Is manga / video games / light novels a good place to start as a freelance translator?
Yes. No? Maybe?
It is difficult to gauge whether freelance entertainment translation it is a good career for you. Each person is different, their experience and abilities vary greatly. You might be a fantastic entertainment translator, but freelance life doesn’t work for you. You might love working as a freelancer, but it turns out you don’t enjoy translation as much as you hoped. Maybe editing or project managing is more your thing!
I recommend taking things slow, doing lots and lots of research into freelance careers, and going with your gut instinct. If you have specific questions then ask fellow translators for advice!
Do I need to do translation tests if I have [X certificate/qualification/portfolio]?
Yes! Every translation agency, every language service provider (LSP), every publisher that works with translators will test your translation or editing skills.
It doesn’t matter what qualifications you have, they want to see if you’re a good for for them. Specifically by checking:
- Your communication skills – how clear/fast you are when replying to emails.
- Your ability to ability to follow instructions.
- Your understanding of the type of media they mostly work with*.
- Your translation and English writing ability.
*Japanese media translation is a little more complex than you might expect. As such, translation tests often include Japanese which can easily trip up inexperienced translators. Things like false friends, character limits, and sentences that read awkward when directly translated.
Editors are also given editing tests.
What should my rates be? / What’s a good rate?
*The following is rough industry standards based on my own experience for translation, not for editing*
Manga and light novels are often calculated by page or a flat rate for a book. (These vary between company.)
Manga tends to be an average of $800-$1000 per book or roughly $5 a page. ($5 is still very low!)
Light novels tend to be an average of roughly $10 a page.
I can’t comment on literary fiction, but if you’re interested in that then I suggest you check out the Society of Writer, Editors, and Translators (SWET) and ask the community there for advice.
Anime subtitle translation is roughly $10 per minute of footage. (Translation only, not including putting the subtitles into the anime. This is often done by someone else.)
Song translation have a flat fee per song and is not included in the episode minute count.
Video games are calculated per character (moji) and vary more drastically depending on the type of game.
Visual novels are an average of $0.01~$0.03 per moji.
Other video games are an average of $0.04~$0.07 per moji.
Entertainment translation is often not paid well, and many translators supplement it with other translation work or other jobs.
Translation for websites, business, tourism, etc., tend to pay better at $0.07~$0.10 per moji. More specialized translation fields (technical, medical, legal, etc.) pay much, much better rates. And, of course, the more experience you have the more you can charge!
You can also calculate your rate based on how many moji you can translate in a given time, and how much you would like/need to make in that time.
Let’s say you can translate two 150 page-long manga in a month, if they’re $5 a page, that’s $1500 a month. One 300 page light novel in 6 weeks is $3000. (Don’t forget to calculate tax and put that aside!!!)
There are agencies that pay below industry standard, and although these are often good ways to get your foot in the door, they are often not sustainable. If you’re unsure about rates you can ask fellow translators for advice.
Is it possible to work full time and translate on the side?
It depends entirely on your full-time job and you, but it is possible to work full time and translate part time on the side.
This works better if you have a full-time job that doesn’t require a lot of reading. If you use similar parts of your brain for your main job then it can make translating on the side harder.
It’s also harder to translate on the side if you have a family and/or if you enjoy your personal time. Translating on the side often means lots of late nights and busy weekends to meet deadlines.
Many Japanese to English translators started out working full time (e.g. as teachers in Japan) and freelancing part time for a year or so, before moving to freelance full-time. Others are happy working full time and translating part time for years.
You can find clients just like any freelance, just make sure you explain your work situation (that you’re not a full-time freelancer) and how much you’ll be able to handle when you apply to a company.
What’s the standard workload in a week/month?
This also depends entirely on you. Your own capabilities, what projects you’re able to get, how strict you are with work-life balance, your translation speed, etc.
It also depends on the type of translation you have! Mediums and subjects you’re familiar with can be translated accurately a lot faster than ones you’re not familiar with. It helps to take a look at the material in advance to get a good idea of how easy/difficult the translation will be for you.
How much work you are able to take on is often negotiated at the start of a project/assignment. A good project manager (PM) should be flexible and happy to come to a compromise.
This article on time management might be useful: Time Management Tips for Freelance Japanese Media Translators
You can work out how much you’re able to translate in a given time by testing yourself. Practice translating of a particular medium (manga, light novel, etc.,) as if you were translating it for a client and see how long it takes you. Keep track of your time and try a few of the same type of medium to get a rough idea. Focus on quality not speed! Your goal is to give yourself and your client a realistic and healthy time frame you can do the work in.
– Additional Advice –
Don’t be an ass
The entertainment localization industry is made up of a large number of small communities. As such people often go to each other for opinions on companies and colleagues. If a PM in a company is a pain to work for, if someone ghosted a team on a project, or if someone has harassed someone else, then that information tends to get circulated.
Basically, don’t be an ass to people. (Which honestly is a minimum everyone should strive for.)
Be humble and curious
Don’t be afraid of feedback! Humility is important when taking constructive feedback. Even translators with years and years of experience make mistakes, and it’s important to be open to feedback and other people’s opinions no matter how experienced you are. There’s always something new to learn!
Speaking of learning new things, curiosity is also important. Ask lots of questions from a variety of your peers. Don’t message a translator with “how do I become a translator?” That…isn’t helpful. For us or you. Make sure you’re asking specific questions and being polite/respectful!
Be more analytical of your own work
Be reflective of your own work and find ways to improve and grow. Don’t be too harsh on yourself though. There’s always room to grow and learn.
Often it helps to periodically work out what areas you enjoy the most (creative, technical, business?), and how you like to work (fast or slow translator? Do you like to work in teams or alone?), etc. This can help shape the type of work and clients you look for.
Fellow translators aren’t competition, they’re colleagues
You are not competing with others for work! There is plenty to go around and making friends with your colleagues can benefit you in the long run if any opportunities come up that they can’t handle.
Find out more about the other people involved in the localization industry too. So not just translators but editors, project managers, letterers, producers, ADR script adjusters, etc. Read articles about how they work and what they struggle with, and this will help give you a well-rounded understanding of the localization industry as a whole.
Partake in the community
I mentioned already the localization industry is made up of lots of little communities, and becoming involved in some of them is a great way to meet people and learn more about translation and the industry as a whole.
Field specific societies/groups:
- American Translators Association (ATA) (general translation association for all languages and fields)
- Japan Association of Translators (JAT) (mix of legal, business, entertainment, etc.)
- Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET) (focus most on literary translation)
- International Game Developers Association (IGDA) – Localization SIG (localization special interest group of the IGDA)
Get involved in volunteering with groups and events if you can. Not just translation events (such as JAT’s yearly IJET event), but industry events like BitSummit (in Kyoto) or Anime Expo (in LA) if you can get to them.
LinkedIn is a good place to find fellow translators in your field of interest, but Twitter is a great place to meet and interact with them.
There are likely other places where you can find Japanese-English media translation communities too. It pays to do some research yourself.
Do your research
Hopefully this FAQ and the resources linked is a good place to start your translation career, but keep researching for yourself! There are always other opportunities in translation training, webinars, events, communities and more that I’m not aware of.
It’s important to do your own research and find things that work for you.
Further Resources and Reading
Book Recommendations for Japanese English Translators
Articles on Translation Business
Articles on Improving Translation Skills
Further Advice from Fellow Translators
Jan Mitsuko Cash’s Newsletter with the Latest Job Listings
Twitter thread from Christina on breaking into J-E translation
Translator Resources from the Detail Woman
Becoming a Japanese-English translator in 2020 from Leocalization
“Can I translate Japanese to English if my native language isn’t English?”
I love that you said yes to this, though beware that you are going to suffer a LOT of discrimination, the ammount of translators who told me to stop translating and go do something else because my native language is not English is not a joke…
Thank you for the comment! I very well might suffer discrimination and judgement from others for this, but that’s on them and not me.
I think it shouldn’t matter if someone’s native language isn’t the language they’re translating into if they are a good translator. But of course, you can’t get good without practice and being a non-native translator will mean even more hard work and training on the part of the translator. But I don’t think we should gatekeep people if they have the passion and drive and desire to learn.
Yes!! You’re right!
I mean, I chose this path because translation from Japanese to Portuguese is not a huge thing, and I decided to go to the J-E path, because I’ve been speaking English basically my whole life, and decided to get even deeper into it, studying translation by my own, reading books, attending to different courses and workshops… All of that just to listen that I should translate only to my native language…
I always believed that with enough effort, one can learn any skill, and it’s very nice to know that I’m not the only one out there!