When I was in college and declared my major as Japanese Studies, people constantly asked me what I was going to do with it. To be honest, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to learn the language and study Japanese culture. My default answer became, "Oh, I'm going to be a translator," because it got people off my back. Ah yes, they would say, that sounds like a responsible adult job. But the more I said it, the more I started to believe myself. I liked literature, I liked reading, oh geez, I did want to be a translator after all. But after taking countless classes and bothering my Japanese professors, I hadn't gotten very far. There were no true translation classes at my college and it seemed that no one could tell me where to start or even where to go from here. It wasn't until my last semester that my advisor helped me do an independent study where I was able to translate a short story, that I finally took my first step into that world.
How do I become a Japanese translator? That's a question we get a lot here at Tofugu and I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people to finally bring you this guide. Hopefully it can clear up some misconceptions on what exactly Japanese to English translation is, what jobs opportunities there are, what the work is like, and more. But first, let's go over the "what."
The Big Three Translation Types
Translation is rendering one language to another language. If you're in academia is could mean literature and short stories. Translation would involve changing any of the following to Japanese or English: manuals, websites, contracts, brochures, instructions, presentations, etc.
Localization is the adaptation of something in one language to be easily understood to a different, specific language/culture/locale. Translation is just one part to localization, and when people say "I want to be a translator!" this might actually be what they mean. Localization includes multimedia such as video games, manga, anime, websites, and software.
Interpretation is oral translation in real time. This can be between two people, or many people, and can be a very stressful, fast paced environment.
This guide will mainly focus on translation because most of the information and skills you need to translate overlap with interpretation and language localization. Many translators end up doing more than one, if not all three, in their careers so it's important to remember that they are all intertwined.
Is Becoming a Japanese Translator Right For You?
If you've been thinking about becoming a Japanese > English translator there a few things you need to know. The first being that this is hard work. You need to know two languages, and if you're reading this, those are probably English and Japanese. You also can't really get by with just spoken fluency – you need to be able to read and write well in BOTH languages. This means that even if you're great at Japanese, if you slept through high school English, you'll have a really hard time being a translator. For native English speakers, you're probably only going to be translating into English. That means you're getting paid for the English you put out, so it better be good.
Being a perfectionist helps because you need to be able to be extremely meticulous. If you're the kind of person who says, "Eh, close enough" and settles for second best, this probably isn't the career for you. You also need to be able to sit down and concentrate for hours at a time. Many translators are either freelancers or work for third-party employers, so being able to manage and dedicate enough time to get large jobs done is essential. If you tend to lose focus or procrastinate, you will have a really hard time meeting deadlines while producing the level of product you're being paid for. In this world, deadlines can be everything.
Procrastination, while something most perfectionists suffer from, cannot hold you back from meeting deadlines. In most cases you will be translating for a person or company who needs the finished product by a specific date. A delay on your end could slow down an entire project and halt the work other people need to do.
You never get to stop studying. If you've been looking forward to the day when you finally get to stop researching, learning and studying, this is not the job for you. Not only do you have to continue studying Japanese for the entirety of this career, but you'll probably need to be current with just about everything that's going on in Japan. For some people this seems like a dream come true, but remember, this doesn't just mean pop culture news. You should know about politics, history, technology, etc as well, depending on the work you end up doing.
The ability to thoroughly research topics, even the most seemingly insignificant details, is also very important. When you translate something, you become an expert in whatever that is. Developing good research skills is vital.
Maybe the most important thing of all, you need to love reading. Seriously, don't become a translator for the money, do it because you love it the process and the work.
Do not plan to have this be your only job. Most people who work in translation, interpretation, and language localization do more than one of the three at some point and also have a day job. Don't expect to make a fortune, especially not right away. It takes time and perseverance to get going and even the most famous literary translators are usually college professors before they do any serious translation work.
What Is Your Skill Level?
- Beginner – You have no knowledge of Japanese
- Intermediate – You have a decent knowledge of Japanese
- Advanced – You are fluent or close to fluent in Japanese
Learn Japanese! If you're in high school or college take Japanese courses, study abroad, talk to Japanese exchange students. If you're an adult you can also sign up for university and community college courses to learn the language. The first step to becoming any kind of translator is to learn the language you want to translate! You'll have a hard time going any further if you skip this step. And no, you don't have to have a degree in Japanese. Majoring in something that gives you a skill, business, marketing, anything else, may be more useful to you.
Okay so you know some Japanese, maybe from college, studying abroad, maybe you just lived there for a while. Next you need to focus on two really important things: kanji and grammar. More than that, now is the time to really break into reading. Try to read everything you can get your hands on that's in Japanese. Even if you don't understand everything right away, use books to study.
Suggested textbooks: A Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar, Read Real Japanese Essays and Short Stories, The New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You, An Integrated Approach To Intermediate Japanese, Japanese Style Sheet: The SWET Guide for Writers, Editors, and Translators
So you know Japanese, at least enough to have gone to this section, good for you! That's an accomplishment in itself. From here you need to consume and practice translating everything. General knowledge is extremely important. Read the newspaper, follow Japanese news sites, volunteer to translate for your friends, order Japanese books, and don't stop studying. Attend seminars in Japanese about various topics – if you live near a college campus or a convention center you may be able to attend some without traveling too far. Practice identifying the authors' voices and transferring those voices over to English. Also, you may want to think about taking the JLPTs.
Suggested textbooks: Japanese Names: A Comprehensive Index by Characters and Readings, 実力アップ!日本語能力試験 まとめて覚える!漢字単語ドリル 1級, 実力アップ!日本語能力試験2級漢字単語ドリル, 実力アップ!日本語能力試験1・2級対策 文法・語彙編, The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation
Get familiar with Japanese resources. Developing the research skills necessary to translate takes the time and effort to familiarize yourself with them. When you're starting out, especially once you start doing professional work, being able to correctly look up things you don't know is essential. Here are some really helpful sites that you should become familiar with:
Japanese-Language Proficiency Test
The Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a great way to prove your Japanese fluency if you can pass the N1 level. Passing the highest level will look good on your resume and may help you get jobs with companies in Japan. The tests are quite difficult and it takes a lot of studying to be able to pass them with any kind of confidence. Working toward passing the N1 test is a great goal to have.
Passing JLPT N1 does not mean you will be a good translator, though. The skills you need to pass the test are not the same skills you need to translate. The test is timed, it's stressful, you can't have a dictionary, and you don't have to do any outside research to answer correctly. It's a standardized test, and those are only capable of testing specific things.
In translation you may have a deadline but no one is timing you. Dictionaries, online resources, and everything you can get your hands on are at your disposal. Researching while translating is key. Finding the voice of the author, mulling over the right way to express something in your native language, that's what you need to be able to do if you want to be a literary translator. None of these skills are tested by the JLPT. Someone can pass the JLPT and be a horrible translator while someone who couldn't pass them could be a great translator.
That being said, if you're going into technical or commercial translation or you would like to work for a company in Japan doing more than translation, take the JLPT. It certainly won't hurt. Just don't expect to pass the N1 and suddenly be a fantastic translator.
There are certificates, masters, and PhD programs that you can take to improve your Japanese language and translation skills and make yourself more marketable to future employers. For people who want to join the world of academia, translating novels, short stories, etc., higher education can help.
You can get a graduate degree in Japanese Translation Studies in the United States at Kent State University and Monterey Institute of International Studies. Or there is Babel University which has worldwide campuses and online classes. These universities cost quite a lot of money, so you'll probably need to take out loans to attend them. Most of the programs are also relatively new, and though the schools boast high employment rates among their graduates, graduating from one of these programs doesn't guarantee you a job.
For certificate programs there is the American Translators Association which also proctors practice tests, if you don't want to go through grad school.
Just remember that higher education is absolutely NOT a requirement. If you do not have the time or money to spend, don't give up because of that. You also don't need to go to graduate school for translation specifically. Participating in a Japanese program, whether it be for language or literature, will be perfectly sufficient.
Although there are no "normal" paths into the world of literary translation, there are resources. One of the best is the British Centre for Literary Translation. They host translation events, getting translators together for intensive summer classes, where you can discuss your methods and undergo translation workshops. If you want to make contacts, go deeper into the art of translation, really open your mind to different methods of translation, and even look critically at your own language, you should consider getting involved in the BCLT. Their website also shares grant opportunities for literary translators, so even if you aren't interested in traveling to the UK for a seminar, they are still a good site to watch.
Another way to get into the field and become familiar with translation, whether literary or commercial, is to train under an experienced and already established translator. Reach out to people you've heard of and see if they're taking on trainees. They can give you first hand advice and pass on any extra work they get. You can build a resume and make money without the having to jump straight into being a full time freelancer. If you're unsure about your work, having an experienced mentor may be the way to go. This goes for people who are still students as well. Talk to the professors in your department and see if they have any extra work they can pass on. Odds are, they do.
One more method to breaking into the Literary Translation scene is by trying to win a translation prize. Even if you don't win, you can still list the translated work on your resume. You can also compare your work to the winning translation to see exactly where the choices you made differ from theirs. Use it to improve and see what it is that publishers are looking for. If you do win, you will gain recognition and an even better resume booster. Either way, the practice itself will help you improve. Here are some you can choose from to enter:
- Donald Keene Translation Prize
- Kyoko Seldon Translation Prize
- William F. Sibley Translation Prize
- Kurodahan Press Translation Prize
Commercial and Technical Translation
If you aren't interested in translating works of literature, whether that's poetry, short stories, or sweeping epics, there is also what's called commercial, or technical, translation. There are three main types of commercial translators. Just don't think you can't do both literary and commercial translation. Most translators start out in commercial translation to build their resumes and pay the bills. They later do a mix of both literary and commercial translation. No one is ever limited to just one, and that goes for the categories listed below as well.
- Contracts with Third Party Companies
- In-house Translator
Being independent gives you the opportunity to make the most money. If you have the drive to work hard and make and keep contacts. Having a specialty will really help you out if you plan to do freelance work. More than anything you need to be able to commit to and keep deadlines.
Third Party Companies
When you work under a contract for a company (usually a website) you get to work on your own time but the agency will take a cut of the money you would have normally made if you were working as a freelancer. However, this gets rid of the need to find your own clients, which may be preferential to people who feel that being a freelancer would be too much work.
This means you would be working at a company, which allows for constant work, though the pay is probably the least of the three. Generally, this is good for beginners to get the hang of things while having some job security.
In all situations your pay will depend on what you're translating and how fast you get it back to your employer or client. Most of the time, you will name your own rates, and that should reflect the quality of the work you think you will produce. Another thing to remember is that if you work as a freelancer you will have to get your own insurance and deal with your own taxes. If this is unappealing, working for a company may be more suitable because they will handle the messier stuff like that.
Try not to limit yourself to one or the other. If you work for a company, as long as they don't have you sign a contract saying otherwise, you can always do freelance work while working for them. This can supplement your income quite a bit if you're a driven person.
Having a specialization will absolutely help you get work and higher paying positions, especially as a commercial translator. In interviews a common questions is "What is your specialization?" Just make sure when you are picking a specialization you choose something you're actually interested in. This is the type of work you will be doing the most. If you don't like something, don't try to make that your forte. Possible specializations include:
You can go to school for these things, maybe a second major or a minor, but most translators are self taught. You do NOT have to have gone to school to say you have a specialization in one of these fields if you have studied extensively enough on your own. But keep in mind that having a degree will give you more credibility starting out if you don't have any work to show possible employers.
Websites to Find Work
There are actually quite a few websites that you can work for translating Japanese to English. This falls under the third party company section of commercial and technical translation. People and businesses contact these sites with what they need translated and the site passes the work onto the appropriate translator. Here are a few of these websites that hire translators of Japanese:
The North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources also offers a list of translation resources on their website.
There are two huge types of localization that people are usually interested in. Anime/Manga and Video Games. However, if you want to do either of these, you usually need to have more than just the knowledge of two languages to get hired. Localization can require you to change graphics, edit signs, and sometimes change entire scenes in order for them to make sense in their new environment.
This is going to sound obvious, but watch and read it. For anime in particular, getting familiar with the way other subbers do their job can help you see what and why they change things. More than that, become familiar with the programs used to edit them. For anime, you should be familiar with Aegisub and .ssa subtitle format. Aegisub is a free program so just downloading it and familiarizing yourself can help you get a job as a subtitler of anime.
There are internships and manga translation prizes, similar to the literature prizes, available if you keep your eyes open. For example, the Manga Translation Battle has been going on since 2012 and doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon. Winning this prize is one way to break into manga specifically.
For the localization of video games it is far more likely that you will be able to get a job if you focus on the video game aspect. Understanding how to program, knowing any number of coding languages, or having a degree in the field are the best ways to get yourself a job in this competitive environment. If your only asset is speaking Japanese and English, you'll find it extremely hard to find something in games.
With both of these types of jobs, just like with straight translation, it is very important that you are able to make and maintain contacts. Knowing and befriending the right people can help you get into companies, make deals, and learn about new projects before anyone else.
Pay in this field can range pretty drastically whether you work for a small online company or a massive gaming company. An important thing to remember is that you're going to have to constantly find new jobs. When a game is done, it's done. That means it's time to find something new, just like if you were a freelancer. Even if you get a job with a company, remember that many gaming companies make a game and then go under, whether the game did well or not. Prepare to have dry spells or work in freelance as well.
Unfortunately for people who want to work with anime, manga, and even video games, for as many people as there are who want to work in the field, there are just as many doing it for free. The reason it's so hard to find work isn't because there is a lack of media by any means. When people are willing to translate and subtitle things for free, coming in and presenting a company with your rate isn't going to work. Getting experience doing commercial translation is a safer way to start out. Once you have a name for yourself and some contacts, you might have an easier time getting work in this type of media. While you do other work you can continue to put yourself out there, offering your rates to companies who do anime, manga, and games. There are always exceptions.
Interpretation is for people who have excellent speaking skills and aren't afraid to get up close and personal to work in real time. For those interested in interpretation the best thing they can do is get training. Sometimes companies will offer in depth training, but it's a bit rare. There are schools like Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and Kent State University in Ohio that offer courses specifically for Japanese interpretation. Monterey in particular has courses that train students to transcribe, speak, and mediate in interpretation fields. If you want to work for a company that deals with Japan and need an interpreter (or vise versa), or say, work in those cool booths at the United Nations, this is the school for you. Unfortunately these schools are extremely expensive, but remember, you do not have to go to school to do interpretation.
Interpretation jobs are probably some of the highest paying gigs you can get but that's because of all the training and difficulty involved. In most cases you need to be confident and have excellent speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. Luckily, no job is the same, and there are positions out there that don't require all that. Sometimes being able to speak both languages and having some patience is all you need.
Sometimes your work for companies as an in-house translator or freelancer will open up opportunities to do some interpreting. Just remember, you don't get to take your time or use your dictionary when you're in a room or up on stage with people. It's important to be able to think on your toes and get the point that you need to get across. Unlike translating, you don't have to worry about finding the author's voice or choosing the perfect words, you just need to convey the correct message.
If you want to get some "easy" experience translating try volunteering as an interpreter at comic and anime conventions in cities near you. Even if you don't get paid, you can definitely put it on your resume and get more casual experience than jumping straight into meetings between companies. The Japanese department at your university also probably gets a lot of requests for interpreters. If you feel like you're ready, and your professors agree, you might be able to get yourself out there that way.
It's a Long Road
In the end, both the good and the bad news is that there is no true path into the world of translation. It may seem overwhelming because that means there is no perfect advice I can give you. I can't tell you what classes to take at what school, what company to start at, or what specialization to go into. What I can tell you is that there are any number of ways to get into translation and you can certainly make your own. Put yourself out there, make contacts, work hard, and do what you love.
Interviews with the Pros
If this guide wasn't enough for you, I also sat down with three professionals in these fields and asked them all the questions you guys were dying to know. Read them here for more first hand information:
- So You Want To Be A Japanese Translator? Starring Susanna Fessler
- How To Be A Japanese Literary Translator And Interpreter, Starring Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
- How To Be A Manga Translator, Interpreter, and Freelance Translator, Starring Jocelyne Allen
Past Tofugu Interviews:
- Ryan Vandendyck: What It's Like To Localize Games To And From Japan
- Translation, Localization, and Nice Japanese Things: A Q&A with Matt Alt