By Oscar Johnson
Why let your hard-learned Japanese language skills go to waste? If you're a native English speaker who can read Japanese without diving for the dictionary and write passable prose in your first language, Japanese-to-English (J to E) translating may be your ticket to an autonomous, if not lucrative, career. And if your idea of light reading is the Nikkei and you can write like an analyst, even better. Add to that, a degree in a high-demand field and this industry could translate into the ideal career.
An estimated 90 percent of all local projects professionally translated from English to Japanese are done so by native Japanese speakers. For locals unfazed by humorously translated public signs that's OK; but as internationalization gains speed more local firms see the writing on the wall about the need to have their own writings concisely translated. It's especially true of specialized fields such as patent law, copyright law, science, medical or engineering. Therein lies the appreciating value of "native" J to E translators: It takes more than vocabulary and grammar to turn a good phrase, so they are prized for their ability to distinguish eloquence from absurdity as well as error in the target language. Since the qualified are a tiny local minority, opportunities abound.
There are three main types of translators: independent freelancers, those contracted by third-person agencies and in-house translators who work as company employees. Most native J-to-E translators freelance, work through agencies or a combination of the two. The autonomy and greater potential for pay are often cited as why. In-house translating pays the least but usually better than for Japanese J to E translators. It offers the stability of a "job" and can be an ideal way for neophytes to learn the ropes. The benefit of working through an agency is that in addition to being your own boss and working from home, they can supply a steady stream of work. Of course, agencies take their cut, and as their numbers swell so do concerns about practices that leave contracted translators underpaid and overworked. Freelancers who work directly for clients have the highest potential to make a good living. But they usually need specialization, seasoned experience and an ability to market their own services. So, how good can that living be, anyway?
On average, full-time experienced translators can earn about 7 million yen a year in Japan, by one account. But as anyone in the field will tell you, there are many variables that determine earnings. They include whether you're employed as an in-house translator, work through an agency or as a free agent. The pay range cited by one U.S. Army Asian Studies Detachment (ASD) source for native J to E translator "specialists" at Camp Zama is comparable to other in-house jobs at US$30,000 to US$70,000 a year. While native Japanese make from 1.8 million to 6 million yen, which also reflects the local market.
Earnings for agency and freelance translators (who comprise the bulk of Japan's native J to E translators) are affected by the speed in which they turn around projects, as well as the rate of pay they negotiate. William Lise, President of New-Tech, Ltd. and a 30-year veteran translator, estimates in his online column that freelancers can make 18 to 40 yen per word, produce 2,000 to 12,000 translated words a day and put in 180 to 302 days a year. This translates into earnings of 6.4 million to 144 million yen annually, but both are extremes. Lise says a more realistic equation is: "25 Yen/word x 3500 words/day x 240 days/year = 21,000,000 Yen/year."
There are many ways to get started translating in Japan, including taking translating courses, attending seminars and talking with those who have been at it for a while. But most native J to E translators either fell into it - or leapt at the chance. The successful say those mulling higher end agency-based and freelance careers should consider that it entails taking charge of accounting, taxes, insurance and most other aspects of running - if not officially starting - their own business.
If undaunted by such prospects, getting practice is a good place to start; volunteer your services to friends or NPOs. There are also many Web sites with projects waiting to be bid on. Also, read Japanese newspapers and books avidly. Take a Japanese language test to assess your skills. In addition to preparing you for the task to come, test certificates and a portfolio, even of volunteer work, may enhance your chances of getting an in-house job, the attention of agencies or your first client.
Want to know more? Sign up for the famous Honyaku list serve for a wealth of J to E translating info and support at: http://honyakuhome.org. Read veteran translator William Lise's columns at: http://www.lise.jp/honyaku/index.html. Other resources include: The Japan Association of Translators (http://www.jat.org/jtt/lost.html), the Japan Translation Federation (http://www.jtf.jp ) and the Society of Writers, Editors & Translators (www.infopage.net/swet). Another source for translating opportunities is: http://www.careercross.com/en/022700_careercross.html.