Monday, June 15, 2009

Dispelling common Japanese misconceptions about translation: advice for the aspiring

So the other day I got a mail from a friend I used to work with saying that another friend of hers was looking into how to get started in translation. As she knew that I've recently done the same, she figured maybe I could help give him some friendly advice, and set up a meeting. I have been translating at every job I've had since I got to Japan about 3 years ago now and been accepting freelance work on the side for more than 2 years, but I'm really just getting started at doing freelance work fulltime, so I wasn't sure how much advice I'd be able to offer him. I figured that some experience is better than none though, and as he was just starting out my advice couldn't hurt really.

There are a few things that I feel Japan usually misunderstands about the world of translation, so I stuck to the basics. Here's what I told him:
  1. Lots of people think that if you can understand both languages you can automatically be a translator - false. Translation involves 2 main skills: understanding the source text and skillfully putting that into words in the target language. For example, for me this means that I not only have to be able to understand what is written in Japanese, but also need to be able to write well in English. There are plenty of people that aren't very adept at writing in their own language, and if you're one of those people then you're going to need to work at that to be a good translator. It's not just about accuracy (although that is important, it can be pedantically overemphasized amongst Japanese translators), but also about style.

  2. Just because you know both languages doesn't mean you should translate both ways. Uggh... this is probably the most common and annoying misconception in Japan, even with translation companies. In the rest of the world, people generally translate into their native language, basically because no matter how well you learn your 2nd (3rd, 4th, etc.) language, you will always have tiny imperfections or not know all the colloquialisms of the foreign language. In Japan, many people think of a translator as someone who translates between both languages in their pair, and then add an extra step by having a native speaker check the work. I don't care how good Kenji's English is I guarantee that mine is better, and likewise he's always going to know more Japanese than I. From a quality standpoint, whenever possible I should leave translations into Japanese to them, and they should leave translations into English to me.

  3. Work in-house for at least a year or so, and get yourself a specialty. While not strictly required, both of these help for sure. Working in-house means that you often have direct access to the person who wrote the text in the first place and can confirm hard to understand clauses directly. It also means that you have time to build your skills and specialized vocabulary.

    As far as a specialty goes, you will make far more money in the long run translating a niche market than you will in general translation. Law work, including patents, and medical work can easily command twice the price of general translation work, but even technical fields such as IT or engineering can make money. I forget where, but one place I saw online said that in the long run it's most important to pick your specialty based on what you enjoy as opposed to what the most expensive field du jour is.

  4. Decide rates based on the source, not the translation! The reason for this is simple and logical, and looking around at some translation companies I can't believe this escapes them... if I'm translating from Japanese to English, I have control over how many words I write, but I can't do anything about how many characters are in the original source text. Thus to take any question of the translator just being wordy in order to inflate their fee and focus on making the best possible translation they can, you should base payment on the source. It's the most fair way to do things.

  5. A word-for-word translation is not always the best translation. As mentioned in 1 above, you are writing for an audience, and different audiences understand things differently. If you have a warning label in Japanese that says "please do this," it should be in command form in English, not left as a kind request. Also there are entirely too many direct translations out there that come off as very stiff and hard to read.

  6. Keep up your skills and never stop learning. In order to do this, you need to read regularly in both languages and also write in your native language, e.g. the target language you're translating into. Many people realize they need to continuously work on their 2nd language, but neglect to work on their native language skills as well. These skills will totally fall off if you don't use them!
Those are the basics I believe. Specific rates and all are whole different can of worms... maybe I'll get into it some other time.

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