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.
- 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.