How to Translate

I have a guest post over at “What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?” (which I’ll always think of in my mind as Shinpai Deshou, the site’s url): “Writing into a Career: Learning How to Write and Adult in Japan and the United States.”

It feels like I’ve come full circle. I learned about the site through my successor on the JET Program, and for a long time it was weekly reading. Paula, the author, came on the first season of the podcast and gave some excellent advice on pursuing graduate studies and teaching at the university level.

I didn’t follow the site as closely while I was in grad school until I finished and had no prospects of work in New Orleans and very limited freelance opportunities. Oh yeah, I thought, I should probably look for opportunities that fit my resume, and Shinpai is the best collection of job opportunities, scholarships, fellowships, and interesting Japanese links on the internet; it was the first place I thought of to check out, and my timing ended up being good: there was a position listed at the Japanese consulate in Miami.

Unfortunately they had just finished taking applications, but I did a quick check of the embassy and all the consulates in the U.S. and found openings in DC, Seattle, and Chicago. My brother was living in Chicago at the time, and I was offered a position there before my applications elsewhere were seriously considered. More than anything I think I had good timing, but my master’s degree also helped improve my chances and the amount that I was paid when I first started ($36,000).

The consulate wasn’t bad work. I was an administrative assistant in the political affairs section, and I spent the time research domestic U.S. politics in the Midwest, writing, and setting up appointments for diplomatic staff with local politicians. Working out the office politics between the MOFA staff was the most challenging part of the job.

We had great health insurance and very good vacation policy (20 days a year, 10 of which you could roll over; 7 days of sick leave), but no other benefits, and we were considered contractors, meaning we had to withhold taxes ourselves and pay them quarterly. For the most part it was a good experience, until it wasn’t.

I think that unless you’re working hard to develop your skills on the side, consulate work really won’t challenge you, and some of the workplace norms are toxic and can be scarring if you’re not careful. Many of the locally hired staff struggled with mental health issues during their time at the consulate. So I’m glad to have escaped, and I am still close with many of the MOFA staff I worked with. We stay in touch on Facebook, and I make time to see them when I’m in Japan.

Check out the post for a few more stories from the consulate and things that I’ve learned as a professional over the past 15 years.

After I submitted the post, I realized I probably could have added a section about learning how to translate, so I thought I’d add that here. I do feel like I’m still learning, to a certain extent, whereas with writing I started to feel more in control from around 2013-2014. So all of this comes with the caveat that I’m still honing my experience, but these are things that have been helpful for me.

Translation is not the same as understanding Japanese. Obviously you need to understand the Japanese in order to do translation, but that’s only one part of the equation. As you work toward a final product, you eventually need to divorce yourself from the Japanese original entirely and ask whether the English can stand on its own. When I first started trying to translate (in college, when I was working as a translation coordinator, and even when I was in grad school), I think I was too devoted to the original text at times.

Writing fluently is more important than having fluent Japanese. Again, obviously you need to understand the Japanese fully, but if you can’t render that in the correct English, then it’s meaningless. By “writing fluently” and “correct English,” I think I mean that you need to have a subconscious repository of language that you can draw from. Rhythms, little phrases, transitions, things that make English look and feel like English. And you need to be able to actively employ these. I’m so curious about how writers develop fluent active use, which is why I often ask translators what kind of writing they did growing up. I think my writing experience (especially writing fiction) was relatively sparse until I started blogging regularly. Do whatever you can to get those repetitions in early.

– I think developing this passive repository of language is easier: Just read a bunch. Read all sorts of texts and as wide a range of writers from as wide a range of experiences as you can. This will grow your vocabulary and language familiarity.

Read other translators, too! From other languages and from Japanese.

You don’t always have to follow the Japanese sentence order. Sometimes it can help to go in the exact reverse order, actually. Often the most important information in a Japanese sentence comes at the end, and English doesn’t work that way.

When you don’t understand something, look for usage examples on Twitter using quotes to block off little pieces of phrases. I talked about using Google for this in the podcast, but recently I’ve found that Twitter also provides some excellent usage examples, and the results aren’t encumbered by the algorithm, so they often feel more natural. A phrase that I was able to check recently was 年次の近い. 年次 pops up as “annual,” but the way this phrase was being used in context was clearly closer to 入社年次, the year a worker entered a company, rather than something like 年次報告, an annual report.

Do look up the Japanese if you’re not sure. Otherwise you might play yourself. If I’d translated the above instance as annual meeting, for example, (and there was probably some context that could have led me to something like that) I would have been way off and ended up looking pretty silly.

I have some thoughts on translating a light novel from right after I finished. That was a fun experience. I hope I get another chance, but I’ll settle for smaller projects for now. This whole pandemic thing is stressful enough.

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