On Translation and Me

I often get questions from aspiring translators about what kind of job I have and how to break into the translation industry, so I thought I’d write a FAQ-style post answering these questions once and for all. If there is anything else you are curious about, feel free to leave a question in the comments.

Q: What exactly do you do?
A: I am a project manager at a translation company in Tokyo.

Q: What is a project manager?
A: A project manager coordinates freelance translators to complete large translation projects. When we receive a translation job from a client, I work with the Japanese coordinators in my office to set up a delivery date. Then I contact freelancers and send them the material for translation if they are available. When they complete the translation, I do a close comparison of the source text and the target text and make corrections and revisions as necessary. I leave comments in Japanese for the client company if I have any questions. The Japanese coordinators then check my comments, take a final look at the file, and submit it to the client company.

You can read more about project management at the blog Essential Project Management.

Q: Wait, aren’t you a video game translator or something? You mention video games a lot.
A: Kind of…but not really. First of all, if I’m anything, it’s a video game project manager (see above). Several of our clients are video game companies, but they send us a wide variety of material, only some of which is actual video games. I check financial documents, proposals, business correspondence, video game dialogue, video game instruction manuals, iPhone apps, and more. We have clients outside of the game industry as well.

Q: So you don’t actually do any translation yourself?
A: For the most part, no. If a project is small enough or on a rush schedule, we sometimes do the translation in-house, but there is always another English native who checks the finished product before delivery.

Q: How much material do you handle every day?
A: Ideally I check 5000 Japanese characters a day (roughly 2500 English words), but this fluctuates and often we handle significantly more than 5000 characters. When I was working on a major project last summer, I was checking up to and over 10,000 characters a day (with the assistance of several hours of overtime).

Q: How much material do your translators translate every day?
A: This really depends on the material, type of file formatting, and the individual translator, but it ranges anywhere from 2500 to 5000 Japanese characters. 3500 to 4000 is probably the average amount.

Q: How did you get the job?
A: I responded to an ad in the Japan Times. I was very lucky.

Q: What do you think was the most important preparation for your job?
A: Reading. If you want any kind of job in translation, whether it’s a project manager position or a freelance translator job, you need to have the endurance to read large quantities of Japanese text and also the experience to understand most of the material without using a dictionary.

The best way to develop these abilities is to read for long periods of time. Read newspapers, novels, magazines, manga, blogs, websites – any material that keeps you interested. Practice reading for an hour, two hours, half a day, a whole day. Look up new words and write them in a notebook. I still do this.

Q: Wait, you don’t use a dictionary?
A: No, I use a dictionary when I need to, but I don’t have time to look up every word. Or even every other word.

Q: Did you really practice reading all day long?
A: Hell yeah. During the summer of 2004, I went to the library every day and read Kafka on the Shore in Japanese. I read from about nine in the morning to four or five in the afternoon with a one hour break for lunch. It took me about a month to finish the first half of the novel, but it was great practice. Too bad the book wasn’t better.

I’ve also been known to read for entire weekends.

Q: Is there anything you wish you would’ve done to prepare for your job?
A: I wish I would have played more video games in Japanese. One of my coworkers is Japanese-Canadian. He grew up in Canada, and besides speaking Japanese with his parents, a good portion of his exposure to Japanese was in the form of video games. He is a walking dictionary of video game terms. He hasn’t played every game ever made, but he is very familiar with the language used in video games and what that language means. Playing English video games will help you develop a familiarity with terminology and style (and the content of the titles themselves), but playing Japanese video games will actually teach you the language.

Q: How do I get a job as a project manager?
A: I have no idea. Look around for companies on the Internet and send off resumes and cover letters. Join the Google Group for Japanese translation – sometimes jobs get posted there. Those are my best suggestions.

Q: How do I get a job as a freelance translator?
A: Another question I can’t really answer. I can tell you how my company hires freelancers. We always accept resumes, and generally we send prospective translators a translation trial. If the trial is good enough, we add them to our list of translators, but you have to be particularly good to break into our group of regulars.

So I guess the answer is send out resumes and emails to as many translation companies as possible. Get in touch with the project managers who work at the companies. Get registered on their list. Stay in touch with them but don’t be annoying, and don’t ever come across as entitled, no matter how good of a translator you are.

Q: What else should good freelancers do?
A: Respond to emails promptly, especially if project managers are inquiring about availability. They will love you. Check in with project managers on Friday afternoons – clients often send us projects on Friday and we have to scramble to find translators before we take off for the weekend. If I was freelancing in the U.S., I might even make an effort to wake up early on Friday morning and check my mail.

Q: Wait a second. Freelancers work on the weekend?
A: Hell yeah. Project managers count on freelancers to speed up projects by working over the weekend. These days don’t get included in the number of business days we have to finish projects, so it gives us more time or lets us offer a faster delivery date to clients.

Also, one freelancer I met said that when you freelance, you pretty much take any work you can get. You’re on your own clock, and any time you aren’t translating, you’re missing an opportunity to make money. The lack of a guaranteed monthly wage must be a strong motivator.

Q: What do you think the most important part of the translation process is?
A: Revision. Understanding the Japanese is really only a third of the work. Maybe even less than that. The other part of the process is expressing the Japanese in natural English. No matter how good your Japanese is, unless you can write a decent English sentence and have a good range of expression, you won’t find any work as a translator.

I emphasize revision because it gives you the opportunity to look at the English text independently of the Japanese. When you’re reading your translation, you should be asking yourself – Does this make any sense? Could anything be clearer? Could anything be more natural? Are there any sentences that are passive that could be active? What impression will people have when they read this?

Q: Tell us a story about a good translator.
A: One of the best translators I work with loves playing games and translating them. He’s played just about every game out there, and if he hasn’t played it, he’s willing to do the research to figure it out. He even does fansubs of games on his own time.

Last summer I was coordinating a major video game. The client sent us the main script, which was enormous. I think it was over 100,000 characters. Because they wanted a quicker delivery, we split the script between two translators. We had one translate the dialogue and another translate the ト書き (とがき), which is basically the “stage direction” for the dialogue. I sent this guy the ト書き. He was so into the game and the series, though, that he went through the dialogue and pulled all the references from the scripts of previous games without me asking for anything. I then forwarded on the notes to the dialogue translator. It saved me and the other translator a lot of time and ensured that the game would be accurate. Lots of respect for this translator.

Q: Tell us a story about a bad translator.
A: We got a small job for a video game proposal at some point last spring. It was only 3000 or 4000 characters, which is a nice volume to send new recruits. I sent it to a guy who had recently passed our trial. When he sent it back to me, there were still Japanese commas and parentheses in the Powerpoint file (全角 text that he hadn’t taken the time to delete completely, the lazy bastard) and he clearly hadn’t taken the time to revise or even think about his translations, so I had to rewrite the whole thing. (On a side note, there were some places where he clearly hadn’t understood the Japanese. If you ever can’t understand the Japanese, leave a note for the project manager. We can fix it, but it helps us if you mark the places where you were unsure. Even our top translators do this – it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Leaving a possible alternative translation in the comments is also helpful, but you shouldn’t be doing it too often.) I barely finished in time. The good news is that the proposal got picked up and we had the opportunity to translate the actual game itself. No one in my office has sent this translator another project.

The moral of these two stories is this: take advantage of any opportunity you are given. If a company gives you a chance to do some actual work, knock it out of the park. Show them that you’ve done the research and really ironed out your English. And don’t be afraid to step away from the Japanese when you’re translating for video games – they call it “localization” instead of “translation” for a reason.

Don’t forget that I do not recommend games translation. Go learn how to translate patents or economics stuff. It’s much easier and will make you a lot more money.

25 thoughts on “On Translation and Me

  1. I won’t ask you to name names or anything, but what sort of a range does your company have in the per-page rates it gives to the freelancers? Low end vs. high end? Or is it a flat rate across the board?

  2. Ditto on Durf’s question – per page, per character, per word, however you normally handle it – and whether you recommend the field or not, just remember that it’s better to translate something you like/know and can do a good job on than just picking the highest paying one.

    I also totally agree with you on Japanese knowledge only being one piece of the puzzle, although somehow I feel those that really need to hear the underlying message (that good target language compositional skills are just as important as source language comprehension skills) won’t see this because it isn’t posted in Japanese. I’ve seen plenty of “translations” from certain companies that are used to having mostly Japanese people handle their JtoE work- it’s the kind of stuff that kills kittens and makes babies cry.

  3. I greatly appreciate the info. I might be interested in the translation industry in the future.

    >Q: Wait, you don’t use a dictionary?
    >A: No, I use a dictionary when I need to, but I don’t have time to look up every word. Or even every other word.
    I recently purchased a MacBook and it has a dictionary desktop app, that (with a little option setting) can turn into a 和英 dictionary. This has helped me tremendously when I find some kanji that I can’t read to quickly cut-and-paste to grab the reading (and meaning). It doesn’t work as well for non-digital documents though :)

  4. This is a great entry. Might have to put it away for future reference. Already taking your advice to heart, trying to read more and more Japanese everyday. In fact, I have more or less stopped “studying Japanese” so to speak. Even got my uni to order some IR books in Japanese for our library (apparently the library has a huge budget to buy more foreign language books but no one has the sense to order them in….can see myself getting a lot of use of this, and improving the quality of the research at the same time!)

  5. Durf and Doug – Sorry, I shouldn’t say anything about rates other than that we pay per source character. I think we used to do per target word (way before my time), but that seems to be out of fashion these days. Makes a lot more sense to go by the source character.

    Would I recommend the field? Hmm… Yes with conditions. The condition being that 1) you love it and 2) you’re actually good at it. When I mentioned patents and financial docs as more attractive material, it wasn’t just because of price. I think it’s easier to learn how to translate that kind of material. There’s a very set language and the English really just has to be clean and dry. If you can learn where to break up the clauses and when to invert the English into a natural order (along with pile of terminology), you’re well on your way. With video games, I’m convinced you need a higher level of natural ability both in terms of Japanese comprehension and English composition/creativity. (And boy am I glad I’m a project manager – I have so much respect for my best translators. I learn so much by reading their translations.)

    apeescape – Yeah, it’s always sort of a pain when we get a document that isn’t digitized. So much easier to copy paste when there’s a word I don’t know.

    Soma – It’s hard to keep up the effort! I started a book the other day, but it’s taken a back seat. I’ve been busy at work the last week.

  6. Wow, this is a fascinating post, Daniel. Thanks for the overview!

    I do volunteer translations for a small Japanese paper, whose articles range from 800-1500 or so source characters. I’m interested in perhaps someday doing some actual work on the professional level, so this is really a good resource to use as a starting point. It also raises some questions, though, about things I’ve encountered in my (limited) experience. I’ll just pick one here, regarding translation of names.

    I’d be kind of stressed if I got a document with a bunch of names (i.e. of people or organizations). I’ve gained a lot of confidence in basic translation, but names throw me for a loop. To get the phonetic pronunciation, I can use a name dictionary to find some alternatives, but there are lots of options, and I don’t always know which one is most common, and of course the most common isn’t always correct. So I usually have to spend a lot of time on getting a “best guess” phonetic translation. This is even worse for katakana (e.g. ヤン・スインゲドー = Jan Swyngedouw, but it takes a lot of googling to find that out!) names. Also, for organizations, I normally try to find out if (1) the organization has a preferred anglicization or (2) there’s a prior precedent that makes sense before (3) translating it myself. But all of this takes a lot of time, sometimes more time than the basic translation itself. How do people deal with that? What do you expect from your translators?

  7. This was a fascinating article! I worked as an intern at a publishing house that deals with only foreign language literary fiction, so I’ve long ago come to terms that translation work (especially of the more creative type) seems to be for the most part freelance.

    Do you have any experience with that legal/patent kind of translation? Is it significantly better in pay? I would prefer working on that more creative level, but who doesn’t want a little extra financial security? Like you said, you can’t miss an opportunity to work when you freelance so I guess one can’t be picky…Also, how easy is it for people outside of Japan to get that kind of freelancer work? Do companies like the one you work for prefer “local” translators?

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  9. DBP – Really good question. One of our client provides us the names for all their business correspondence, but usually tracking down names involves a lot of Googling. One trick I’ve figured out (for just generic Japanese names, not specific people) is to search for the name on Wikipedia. Odds are there will be someone with the same kanji somewhere on Wikipedia.

    I usually expect translators to make an effort and do some research. If you’ve been Googling for 15 minutes and can’t find anything, I think it’s fine to leave a comment saying you translated this to the best of your ability but are not sure if it’s official. Project managers should be responsible for checking things like that with the client if they aren’t readily accesible.

    If you have any other questions, feel free to post them or get in touch with me via email.

    Will – I don’t have any legal/patent translation experience, but I have heard that it pays much better. And there are also places who hire patent translators in-house, which gives you the benefit of a monthly wage, health insurance, etc.

    We hire freelancers from all over the world. It’s nice if they can get back to us about availability the same day, but we take their location into account. And actually sometimes it’s good to have translators in different time zones – they can translate while I sleep!

  10. Daniel,

    Very interesting post! If I could buckle down and achieve that level of fluency, I’d love to do some translation work someday.

    I can certainly understand what you’re saying about patent/legal translation being easier in terms of set terminology, but what would be a good way to prepare for that kind of work? For translating something like a video game, it would make sense to play a lot of video games in Japanese, read manga, etc. Do you recommend trying to get some contracts or legal documents in Japanese and reading through them for practice?

  11. Daniel,

    Great and straightforward description making the translation industry more transparent. We need good people to join the industry and they might do so after reading your blog.

  12. Daniel: Good, that clears things up a bit, and is kind of a relief. I can’t see how it’d be reasonable to expect much more than that, and what you were describing is about the baseline of what I normally try to provide (though sometimes it’s taken a lot more than 15 minutes…). When I took on this volunteer gig, they didn’t give me any sort of insight into what format they were looking for, or how many notes they’d like me to attach, so I just sort of felt it out. Sounds like I wasn’t really too far off, although at the beginning I maybe did provide too many alternate translations (though I’ve long-since stopped doing too much of that, except in ambiguous places).

    Another question: how much liberty should a translator take to add details he thinks necessary in presenting material to an English-speaking audience? I often find myself adding information that seems to need to be explicit for a non-Japanese reader (noting when I do so, of course, and avoiding such changes to certain content, such as direct quotations). Does this seem reasonable, or should that more often be left to the editor? They’ve never given me any particular direction one way or the other, but they’ve always left those sorts of changes in when the articles were published.

    This is opening a whole new avenue of thought for me, because I never really realized how much translation work is freelance. I’m very interested in following up on this, so I’ll probably start looking for companies to send resumes to in the near future.

  13. Sorry that this is going to be long. I think this was a great post, and just wanted to jump in…

    I spend a lot of time checking work from freelancers at my job. Some seem to spend hours researching and footnoting sources for proper nouns, but then write poor English. Others write English so fantastic that it makes it hard to spot where they’ve failed to properly lookup a key proper noun (think: name of the client company’s president). These people drive me crazy.

    From my perspective, I want freelancers to make a good faith effort (absolute max. 5 minutes or so) to find proper names/nouns. Unless the name/noun is something that belongs to the client, like one of their products, factories, or executives, which the client can easily fill in. Then I want them to make their best guess and leave a clear indication that they are unsure of the proper rendition, and focus on with producing an accurate translation of the sentences.

    My absolute ideal is to have a comment in the Microsoft word document that includes the Japanese for the word, as well as something like “Unable to confirm.” Then if need be I can extract the comments and send them to the client for confirmation.

    DBP: As far as “taking liberties,” you say that your newspaper team has “never given [you] any particular direction one way or the other.” I say, if you don’t have directions, ask! The fact that the articles are getting published as-is does not necessarily mean that the client knows what is going on. Some clients are not comfortable enough with English to do a proper check, and may just be taking your word for it. But you’ll never know until you check.

    It also depends on the purpose of the translation.

    For a newspaper article to be published in an English-language version, it is probably a good idea to make it reader friendly by working these explanations into the main text.

    For an already published newspaper article being translated for informational purposes (for example, a company wants to check an interview with their CEO that ran in a Japanese paper), you might want to put these explanations in comments, to better preserve the content of the original text.

    Establishing clear mutual expectations is key, and its always better for the PM to know what you’re doing so they don’t get a nasty surprise in the event that the client comes back angry about added information.

  14. Blue Shoe: Good God no, man! Patents are so boring! I would only ever read them if I was being paid to read them. And to translate on that level, first you have to get your Japanese up to snuff. The best practice is probably to read newspaper articles about politics and finance (rather than articles about pop culture). I think there are also classes that will teach you how to translate patents. Those might be a good investment once you get to a high level. I’ve heard of some translation companies teaching employees to translate them, which is probably the ideal method.

    DBP: I agree with what Julia said. Leave comments in Word where you are unsure. However, leaving too many comments may send the message “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing/is really unsure of his translation/doesn’t understand the Japanese.” I’ve seen coworkers leave really long comments for the client, trying to explain some subtlety in the translation, only to have the client come back with questions and revisions – more work, and not always the best translation as a result. So you have to be selective with what you ask. That said, if you can air out any questions beforehand, that’s always best. It’s also important to know the client. I change my commenting depending on the client. The 担当者 of the major game I worked on last summer was excellent – he always liked lots of comments, especially when we were loose with the English.

    And I totally agree with what Julia said here: “its always better for the PM to know what you’re doing so they don’t get a nasty surprise in the event that the client comes back angry about added information.” When you’re working with a PM, make sure you ask questions at the beginning of a project and leave comments where you are unsure. Again, you have to get to know the PM as some may prefer that you just make a call and do the translation rather than ask too many questions.

    Digging around on a company’s website can turn up a lot of information, especially if there is an English version of the site.

  15. Julia and Daniel,

    Thanks! It’s fantastic to have the perspective of (not one, but two!) project managers on this sort of thing. For the most part, I think I’ve already been doing the sorts of things you mentioned– whenever I’ve added explanatory information, I’ve always called it out in a note, and whenever I’ve been unsure about names or transliterations I’ve included notes on that, too. So whoever is editing this should be pretty clear as to what I’ve done.

    But the advice about being a little more proactive in asking about expectations is probably pretty good. I’ve done some of that in the past and the answers were a bit vague, partially because this is a rather small outfit and I think this PM has a few other hats to wear. (Again, what I’m doing now is volunteer, so it’s one step below the level you are working at.) Anyway, they seem to be pleased with my output so far, but I’ll ask them a few of these questions specifically in the near future, to try to get some more prodcutive feedback.

    That brings up a good point, though. I get these files in plain text format, so although I usually attach a Word document (the one I use while translating) with my reply, I also paste the full plain text in the body of my reply, since I assumed they wanted plain text back. That means that my notes are inserted in the text like this [*1] with footnotes at the bottom. I suspect this works, since the articles aren’t really that long, usually. But Word comments would be a lot easier, if they could handle them. Is that what both of you use? Are there any other software tools that you’d be expecting your translators to use?

    Heh, I suppose I may be getting into the realm of asking too many questions of PMs here. ;) Sorry, but this is all very informative, and I really appreciate it! Looking at my stash of translated articles, it looks like I’ve done 30-odd or so, so far; I don’t know if that’s enough experience to really recommend myself, and it’s only volunteer, but maybe I’ll start looking for companies to drop a hook near.

  16. Oh, and Julia, thanks for the kantango reference! I’ve used various sites at times, but this seems to be simple and easy on the eyes, so I’ll definitely keep it in the quiver. Much obliged!

  17. I can’t seem to stop commenting on this post… Sorry Dan…

    Blue Shoe: For contracts, you should read a lot of contracts in English, learn to understand the real nuances of the terms, and then start reading contracts in English as well. There is a government site that offers searchable sanctioned bilingual versions of many major laws, which is great to figuring out equivalent terminologies. Here is the link: http://www.japaneselawtranslation.go.jp/

    For patent translations, I think technical knowledge is actually more important than legal/business knowledge. Patents are very precise descriptions of technologies, and there is really subtle language describing the spatial, chemical, and other relationships between various parts and ingredients. If both your Japanese and your understanding of the general field of technology are not extremely strong, you are likely to make a huge mess of it. (I speak from woeful experience translating a couple of semiconductor manufacturing patents.)

    If you don’t have a technical background, try reading an English patent, and see if you actually, really, truly understand what they are saying or what the diagrams are showing. If you don’t, you’re going to want to study up.

    Luckily for the aspiring patent translator, patents are all clearly labeled with numbers, and many are available in both English and Japanese online. If you start studying in advance, then you will be in good shape to use these resources in real-time translation when trying to meet a deadline. Here is one example: http://www.ultra-patent.jp

    For what it’s worth, there is also a school called Sunflare Academy (http://www.sunflare.com/academy/) that offers distance courses in patent and other forms of translation. Most students are Japanese, but they offer translation courses in both directions. I have not taken any courses myself, but I have a Japanese friend who works in an IP law office here, and she has taken a course or two there each semester over the last couple years. There’s also a certification test your can take to be able to register with their translation company after the course, but I hear it is really tough.

    Finally, the Honyaku mailing list (http://groups.google.co.jp/group/honyaku) that Dan mentioned is a great resource for questions about these things. It’s a really active community and there are several very experienced patent translators who are willing to help decode difficult syntax, abbreviations, and vocabulary.

    Basically, the core message behind this and my last comment is that it is really important to improve your Japanese and English writing, but it is almost as important to be aware of what you *don’t* know and be confident enough about the rest of your abilities to admit that to the people hiring you. Otherwise you may end up giving them a bad translation, cause them trouble, and like the guy that Dan stopped sending work to, you will be out of a source of income.

  18. I agree here again with Julia, especially about the technical knowledge part. I think this further supports my theory that video games have an illusion of being easy to translate. With technical material and patents, it’s immediately apparently that certain sets of knowledge need to be acquired before you can translate (patent vocabulary, technical vocabulary of applicable field). People may think that video games do not have the same hurdle, but they actually do. The added element of creativity only makes the whole process more difficult, especially since creativity is not as easily acquired as terminology.

    DBP: Some companies like their translators to use Computer Assisted Translation software like Trados or Wordfast. At my company, some of our clients require it for certain projects, so we have to find a translator who uses the software.

    But other than that, basic Microsoft Office is fine. Also, please please PLEASE tell your project manager if you are using Open Office or another set of software. Sometimes these programs can subtly alter files (fonts and colors get changed, cell widths get messed with, etc).

  19. Late getting back here (sorry!), but I wanted to thank you for all the good information. I’d love to hear more about the business of translation in the future. Much obliged!

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  21. Nice write-up!

    I would agree that playing Japanese video games helps a lot if that’s the sort of translation you’re doing. I’m a native English speaker, but I have a BA in Japanese and lived in Japan for a while and I worked on a translation project with someone who grew up in a Japanese household but didn’t play a lot of Japanese video games… my familiarity with common terms was a HUGE help.

    It’s interesting to me because it sounds like if there’s one thing in common between what I do (I’m in video games QA though I hope to move to localization eventually) and doing translation work is the importance of clear and frank communication.

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