Bill Lise

Japanese Competency for the Native English-speaking Japanese-to-English Translator

by William Lise

(Originally published in 1998; last edited May 28, 2022)

How Good Is Good Enough?

Just how well do you need to read Japanese to be a Japanese-to-English translator? I have heard this question from some beginners and thought I would write a few comments, perhaps of some interest (and perhaps annoyance) even to experienced translators. Naturally, I am directing my comments to NES (native English-speaking) translators, the demographic most likely to achieve professional-level Japanese-to-English translation ability.

Starting Out

Many translators are fortunate in that most of their translation situations provides them isolation from clients, allowing them to translate in the seclusion of their workplaces, without the danger of being discovered looking through a pile of dictionaries or scampering to Google an inordinate number of times per hour. This fortunate situation is made possible in many cases by the intervention of an agency in the food chain of the translation business. The existence of an agency can save the translator (and the client) from worries over whether the translator is really up to the job.

For the beginning translator, therefore, the answer to my original question might be "not that good at all," if the definition of success at translation is the receipt of repeated jobs. The tolerance for plodding along at a slow pace and doing excessive dictionary lookup work is largely governed at the beginning stage by the tolerance on the part of the translator for low income. The quality issue remains, however, and my experience tells me that a translation done with lots of lookup work at a very low speed is more likely to have serious problems than one done at a more practical speed by someone capable of working essentially freed from the dictionary lookup process.

Breaking Out and Away from Dictionaries

While translators are sometimes assumed to work surrounded by piles of dictionaries (print and online), some beginners might be surprised to discover how little dictionary work experienced professionals do during an average workday. Once you get to a level at which JA-to-EN translation is no longer painful, you will not be using NES-targeted dictionaries or resorting to Google searches to look up words (and even characters) that often.

But for the NES translator, just what skills would be the marks of someone who can achieve this level of dictionary-free translation? I propose the following as a set of skills that a translator might use as benchmarks of Japanese capabilities. Some of these sound irrelevant, but are included for the specific reasons cited.

Read aloud an article from a Japanese newspaper, without faltering.

This is a measure of your general comprehension. I often hear translators say "I know what it means, but I can't remember the reading." I submit that many times these comments are not supported by fact, unless the translator is treating a Japanese element as no more than a logogram for an English word or expression. Translators who are doing this kind of code conversion are not actually doing something that should be classified as translation.

Work through a typical translation text with no more than one dictionary lookup per 1000 characters

Why, you might ask, is such a level of dictionary independency required? It is not, I suppose, if you are not interested in achieving a healthy income. But there are other reasons; read on, please.

Discuss a job with a Japanese client over the phone, including reading off passages from their manuscript.

To be fair, since most NES translators working outside of Japan can probably go through their entire working life without direct contact in Japanese with native Japanese speakers, the above might not be that meaningful. But not having that ability still hints at an insufficient level of Japanese understanding.

Perhaps the above two items come into more focus now? There are not that many direct Japanese clients who will feel easy giving translation work to a non-Japanese who would falter in reading a manuscript aloud. This again points up one of the values of an intervening agency, which shields the translator (and the client) from such situations.

Develop Japanese as an active tool for communication on a day-to-day basis

For those living outside side Japan, this might be difficult, and to some translators this might seem unnecessary, regardless of where they live. Think again, however, of the times you have been stumped by elements in a manuscript simply because they are not things that you would use, for no other reason than that you simply don't use Japanese to communicate. This phenomenon is particularly serious with slang expressions, expressions needing cultural context, and (last but not least) sloppily handwritten documents, which sometimes can be saved only if the translator can figure out what could have been written in a particular situation. Many people might think that handwritten Japanese is a thing of the past, but it still appears with somewhat distressing frequency when examining witnesses regarding their lab notebooks.

Are these comments starting to come into better focus?

Having Japanese language as an active and usable tool is not a matter of showing off how well you have learned the language, but rather a matter of developing the ability to rise to (fall to?) the level of the Japanese manuscript because it is written in an idiom and context with which you have an active capability.

How Do You Get There?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are people seeking to become translators. My particular story—described elsewhere—is not necessarily the path to be looked to for achieving proficiency with Japanese.

Receiving a formal education in Japanese can be useful, but is seldom to total solution to attaining the level of ability that I have cited above. We probably all know people with advanced degrees in Japanese who could perform few of the feats I cite, and some that are quite dysfunctional in both reading and speaking Japanese. Here are a few suggestions on getting there, hopefully without that much pain on the way.

Get a Japanese Life. That's neither an insult nor a typo. If you have any interests outside of translation, language learning, or Japanese culture, why not consider pursuing those interests through the medium of Japanese? This might be difficult outside of Japan, I must admit, but for people who have the chance to interact with Japanese natives, I strongly recommend this. Are you interested in cycling, art, music, or whatever? Find Japanese people with the same interests; join their groups and press flesh. Some good stuff might rub off.

Perhaps there is some good news for Japanese-to-English translators working in advanced economies. Unless there is (literally) a revolutionary realignment of human society and political entities, the Japanese-to-English translators in developing economies who are yapping at your heels and lowering JA-to-EN translation rates (at least if you have chosen to deal with US translation brokers that pit these translators against their Anglophone counterparts) are almost never going to be able to "get a life" in Japanese, because of social, political, and economic reasons.

Use Japanese with Your Japanese Clients. This can be difficult at the beginning, and sometimes impossible if you have started out the relationship using English. However, any translator with aspirations of acquiring more than a select fixed population of direct clients in Japan is probably going to have to get past this hurdle.

Develop Relationships with Informants with the Correct Work Context and Experience. Decades ago I was thrown into a situation in which I needed to sell products (my company's) in Japanese. Luckily I had a subordinate salesman who I could use as a model for speech. He had years of experience selling, making him a good "speech model." You might not be so lucky, but it might pay to try to develop a nearby link to the "business-speak" variety of Japanese that will be necessary in dealing with Japanese clients.

Read Japanese Other Than the Manuscripts You Translate. As unbelievable as it might seem, there are translators who do no reading of Japanese beyond what they are translating. Reading outside of your manuscripts and even outside of your field of specialty can give you the depth and breadth of experience necessary to pull you out of tight spots. I highly recommend it.

Almost all translators have a life outside of translation, and reading about those non-translation interests is a good way to improve your command of real Japanese, while acquiring information about a subject in which you are really interested.

For example, one of my interests is the Imperial Japanese Navy (and its reincarnation as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force). Another is collecting slide rules (no laughter, please). I read about both topics in Japanese. Additionally, I read books in Japanese that are about other things, and hardly ever travel on a train or plane without something to read in Japanese.

Is Thoroughly Understanding the Source Text Enough?

A rhetorical question, of course. In order to succeed at Japanese-to-English translation, you also need field-specific knowledge and the ability to write well in English in the style expected by the presumed reader the original writer was writing for. More on those topics elsewhere and at another time.