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Specialization as a Survival Strategy in Japanese-to-English Translation

William Lise (published June 21, 2020)

When I started translating as a full-time activity in the early 1980s, many people started in translation after having worked in non-translation fields. My pre-translation life was:

Although much of my pre-translation life might not appear to have prepared me for a career as a Japanese-to-English translator—a career path I had never actually considered—the formal engineering learning, industry experience, and experience of forming and running a company in Japan turned out to be important in preparing me for the translation career I embarked on in the early 1980s.

These days, a new translator is more likely to come from formal learning of Japanese at a university and less likely to have specialized knowledge or real-world experience in any particular subject matter that might be useful in commercial translation. Literature and other cultural aspects of Japan might be interesting, but will not prepare you to translate the commercially important subject matter encountered in real-world translation as a business and career.

The General Translation Myth. Although the real translation business provides almost nothing that you could properly characterize as general translation, general translation is precisely what many translators claim to do. Alternatively, some claim a blinding variety of specializations. Such claims are often nothing more than an admission of lack of specialization and a concern that if you don't claim to do general translation, you will not get enough work.

Competing with Machine Translation Systems. Admitting or even bragging about not having specialized knowledge and understanding of specific subject matter risks placing a translator on equal footing with machine translation systems, which also have no understanding of technology or any other subject matter worth paying money to translate.

Machines Mimicking Humans. Machine translation systems make valiant attempts to translate without understanding what they are translating, which amounts to superficially mimicking human translators. Sometimes they do as well as poor human translators. But that is not a smart approach for a human translator, particularly since machine translation systems are not only poised to take over from incompetent human translators, they are already doing just that in some specific fields. One example is Japanese-to-English translation of discovery documents used in US litigation. Machine translation systems are already used in the arduous task of document review, and will shortly be used (if they are not already being used) to replace the Chinese translators who are currently doing much of the Japanese-to-English translation of documents selected in the discovery document review process. Those translators are at high risk of losing the work to machine translation. Why compete with them?

Take a Bit Higher Aim. Trying to compete with a translator demographic about to be made obsolete by technology is not a smart approach. If you are a prospective or new translator, it is important from the outset that you discard the notion of competing with either machine translation or Japanese-to-English translators in China. One way of doing that is to acquire a specialization.

The Cost of Getting There. For a prospective translator who has just graduated from a formal language or translation program, the idea of having to spend more time acquiring knowledge in a field that might seem far removed from language itself (and often from the interests of the translator) might be unappealing. But if you don't acquire field-specific knowledge in a commercially important subject-matter field, you are most likely to spend your career competing with translators at the bottom who need to rely on work handed out by translation brokers that are themselves very close to the bottom of the translation food chain.

Acquiring Field-Specific Knowledge. Although formal education can be useful to a translator (and was in my case, although admittedly not by plan), there are other approaches. Depending upon the field, in-house positions that are suitable for beginning translators might be available. Not at translation agencies, of course, because translation agencies, most of which are brokers, might sometimes be run by translators or ex-translators, but very seldom have many in-house translators.

For people wanting to break into patent translation, working at a patent firm in Japan could be useful. You will probably be made to repair the Japanese-to-English translations done by people who should not have translated the documents you have been given to edit, but the advantage of having access to patent specialists could well outweigh the indignity of not being permitted to translate from scratch yourself.

If you are in Japan, some time working in a proper Japanese company is likely to provide useful experience, particularly in acquiring spoken Japanese usable in business situations, an area in which many (probably most) native-English speaking translators are seriously lacking.

Individual Study. I know a number of translators without formal education or even real-world experience in specific fields who appear to do quite well translating in those fields. It is not easy and, for a translator not interested in commercially important fields, it could be painful. In some cases, that pain could be taken as a hint to make a career change.

I will be writing more about acquiring field-specific knowledge in another article or two. Suffice it to say at this point that such efforts do not include attendance at Google Search University or heavy use of dictionaries, two approaches on which many translators appear to rely heavily.