The Translator as a Writer

The Translator as a Writer

The following is the text of an email sent by John Stroman, an experienced patent translator, to the JAT mailing list. There have been a lot of discussions about the advantages of native speakers in certain aspects of translation and I thought this email hit the nail on the head.

Nishiyama Sen once described the ideal interpreter as a window, an almost invisible entity lying between the source and the recipient that allows the source image to pass through to the recipient with as little distortion as possible.

I think the same concept holds true for the ideal translator.

Rather than hurling bricks, I think we should take a step back and remember that translating is a subset of professional writing just as interpreting is a subset of professional speaking, but with the added condition that because two different languages are involved, the image passing through the window will inevitably be distorted, much like the fuzzy images we see of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

Even among native speakers, some people obviously write and/or speak better than others. Generally people who are very proficient in their native language will also become very proficient in a foreign language if given enough time and opportunity to learn one, AND they are highly motivated. They can become bilingual specialists, but their language skills will rarely be perfectly balanced.

So let’s abandon the notion that a native speaker of the target language will always translate more competently than a non-native speaker. Such a person may write better than a non-native speaker, but not necessarily. Some people are just poor writers in their native language. Conversely, a native speaker of the source language will likely have better comprehension, but may not be able to express concepts as smoothly as a native speaker of the target language or may not be as astute mechanically. A professional translator (i.e., professional writer) who is a native speaker of the target language can be expected to make fewer mechanical errors in the translated output, but one who is a native speaker of the source language can be expected to comprehend the source language better. Choose your poison.

Different translation tasks require different levels of comprehension and output. Several years ago I was asked to review the J>E translation of a chemical patent by a very prominent NES translator. The translation was beautifully written; in fact, much more eloquently than I could have done. In the examples section, however, the translator wrote that chemical A was added to a solution containing chemical B although anyone with a chemistry background would immediately grasp that such a procedure would result in an explosion.  The original Japanese simply stated that the two were added and mixed together, so no true chemist would make that kind of mistake, but the translator lacked such a background and “improved” the Japanese sentence to make it sound better in English.

Many people with some competence in a foreign language are either forced by their employers to translate, or they mistakenly become freelance translators even though they cannot comprehend the source language really well and/or are poor writers in the target language. Give me a biomedical translation, and I’m right at home. Telecommuncations or finance?  Forget about it. I don’t understand these fields at a high enough level in my native language.

I think the most we can say when we encounter a bad translation is that the translator was ill-equipped to handle the job, and we can only speculate about the reason.

The woman who learned English in 6 months

The woman who learned English in 6 months

The following is based on an article in the Autumn 2012 edition of 通訳翻訳ジャーナル. The subject of the interview is a simultaneous interpreter named Yayoi Oguma, a woman who went from a TOEIC score of 280 to 805 in half a year. After three years, she was good enough to become a simultaneous interpreter. You can learn more about her on her website or check out one of her books. Below are some of the study tips which I have revised for Japanese learners. Bear in mind that she did each of these things every day.

  1. Take a cluster of 5-15 words concerning on a topic and make groups of 2-3 synonyms and 1 antonym. Review them every day before bed.
  2. Listen to 2-4 hours of Japanese a day. If you are going to listen to the news in Japanese, look up the Japanese news in English first so that you will understand the content. Then listen all in Japanese, looking up words as needed.
  3. Read translated articles, or articles in both languages about the same topic, out loud in both Japanese and English.
  4. When reading aloud, record yourself and review your pronunciation.
  5. Help grow your memory by reading and orally reproducing (not reciting but giving an overview of the content) one article a day.
  6. Get in the habit of translating whatever you are listening to in your head. Start practicing this for 5-10 minutes a day until you can do it for longer or do it automatically.
  7. Do 20 minutes of Shadowing (repeating the speaker’s words in their language a second behind them) a day. If that is too hard, start with 5 minutes a day. Record yourself and review your pronunciation and mistakes.
Getting your first job

Getting your first job

Getting your first job as a translator or interpreter can be hard if you don’t have any experience. This is a basic guide to help you know when you are ready, prepare for the job, and sell yourself to the company. 

Language Skills

  • Translating: There is no hard and fast rule about how much language you should have studied before you become a translator but I am going to make a subjective judgement and say at least 5 years of regular classes. Once you have completed 5 years of college level Japanese, you have a good foundation. Most college programs put you somewhere in between JLPT N3 and N2 after 4 years. There is still A LOT that you don’t know and translating will be a challenge for you. But a lot of the information that you need is stuff that you will not learn in a classroom anyway. The more you read on a variety of topics, the better you will be at translating.
  • For interpreting, I would put the bar much higher though. You will need to understand at least 80 to 90% of what you hear in business situations. If the news gives you trouble and you can’t watch TV shows without subtitles, you are not ready.


  • For most in house translation jobs, you don’t need any certifications per se. However, if you have never translated before, certification will only help you.
  • Most jobs say they require JLPT N1 but you can get some jobs with N2 or with a lot of experience but no JLPT. The American Translators Association has a translation test but it is expensive and grueling. The only other option, that I know of is an online test from the Japan Translation Federation but this is given during the day in the Japan and therefore overnight in the US.

Selling yourself when you have no experience

  • If you are serious about becoming a translator, get some experience before you graduate. Volunteer to help translate for a local organization. Do some translation on your own. Research the area you want to translate in. Translate manga or sub anime for free. If there are Japanese companies in the area, contact one and ask them if they would be interested in hiring an intern. Anything you can use to say, ‘I have experience’ will be a plus. Likewise, if you want to be an interpreter, go to your school’s international student office and see if they have any Japanese students who need a little help registering for classes or getting a driver’s license. Be upfront with them, tell them you have never interpreted before but you want to practice. Most people will be understanding.
  • When you apply for your first job, be sure to emphasize the skills you have on your resume. There are lots of things other than language skills that go into being a good translator. Show them that you take initiative and can manage projects on your own, that you have computer skills, that you can stay at a job for more than 3 months, that you are motivated and dedicated to improving your Japanese skills. These can all be shown through various activities like study abroad, part time jobs, volunteer activities, and clubs. (ie. If you were the president of the Japanese club while you volunteered to tutor international students and holding down a part time job, you are probably a go-getter.)
  • When you get an interview, come with a translation sample in hand. It should be short (about a paragraph) and on a general topic. Something like a news brief would be appropriate. (Make sure you cite the document as well.) If your lack of experience comes up, you can tell them that you prepared a sample translation for them.
  • Do as much research about TRANSLATION as possible before the interview. Remember that they not only want to know that you can speak Japanese, they also want to know that you will be a competent translator. Emphasizing that you understand how important it is to stick close to the original meaning while producing a smooth native text, or talking about how Japanese cannot be translated word for word because the nuances come across differently in English, will make you sound like you know what you are talking about.

Doing other things

  • If you have tried over and over and still can’t land a job, it may be that you don’t have the right skill set or that you just don’t have enough experience. Look for some other jobs in a Japanese speaking environment. You could try a Japanese grocery store or restaurant, or you could look for a different kind of job in a Japanese company. Sometimes, Japanese companies will often look for engineers, secretaries, accountants, or HR people and say “Japanese skill is a plus.” If you can get a job like that it will help you grow and might give you a leg up on your next attempt to get a translator job.
  • If you have the means, ie you have a job that supports you but your hours are flexible, then you can try going freelance. Sometimes it can be a little easier to get a job this way. If you quote fairly cheaply, you can probably get a job. Then once you get one, it becomes easier to get more. Just do some research before you dive in. Make sure you know how to quote and try to keep to your area of expertise or to general topics. It would be better not to get a job than to get one and screw it up, turn it in late, or make a mistake that costs the client money to fix. If you want to research more about freelancing, ProZ has a wealth of information on the subject.