The Realities and Benefits of Translation as a Full-time Job – An Introduction

This week we have a special guest article on translation by a professional in the field. Ever wonder what it takes to be a translator? Considering going outside of academia with your Japanese? See what he has to say about where your Japanese can take you and how to get there.

Japanese BA? Translation!

The world of Japanese language learning is quite an interesting place.  Japanese is a popular language at universities and other institutions, consistently having more people enrolled than languages such as Russian and those whose roots run much deeper in Western culture than Japanese ever did.  But there is a huge difference between Japanese language programs and, for example, Russian language programs, that many aren’t aware of – the push to academia.  Whether it’s because most language learners- or at least those interested in such “exotic” languages as Japanese- are inherently more liberal and academia-leaning, or whether it’s because of institutional pressure, many people assume their only choice with a BA in Japanese is to specialize in an aspect of Japanese history or culture and get a Master’s, PhD, and become a professor.  I’m going to talk about another choice: translation.  Not just translation, but professional translation as a full-time career.

I currently translate for a specialized branch of the United Nations in Geneva (think your employment is limited to Japan or the US? Wrong!) while at the same time doing freelance and working my way towards a Master’s in Translation & Interpretation.  I have professional experience doing Japanese to English translation, which is what I do for the UN, and English to Japanese translation (very rarely), as well as Japanese to English and English to Japanese simultaneous and consecutive interpretation.  I double majored in Linguistics and East Asian Language and Culture with a focus on Chinese and Japanese, and have been studying Japanese around nine years, and Chinese six years.  I will skip most of my history with Japan and Japanese so as not to bore you readers, but suffice to say like many reading this I came from a heavily academic background before getting into translation and interpretation.

The New Breed of Japanese Learner

I was pretty much discouraged from going into translation from the very beginning.  Any professor I talked to would either look slightly disappointed, or ask if I were referring to translating literature or Genji Monogatari (psshaw! Everyone knows Heike Monogatari is where the fun is).  Japanese programs I attended were also uniformly geared to churn out academics and scholars of Japan, the two notable exceptions being Cornell University’s FALCON program, which puts almost all its focus on speaking/listening, and the Inter-University Center in Yokohama, which goes out of its way to accommodate each student’s goals and desires.  The Center also has superb and comprehensive courses in politics, economics, business, etc.  But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.  Yet the face of Japanese language learning is changing.  Those in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation grew up with Greek and Latin classics held as the epitome of exemplary writing, and tended to judge other languages as worthy or otherwise depending on whether those languages had produced similar epics.  Japanese certainly has; the first novel ever written was written in Japan.  Many of the greatest Japanese literary translators, such as Seidensticker, started learning Japanese due to WWII and served in the U.S. military.  After the war ended, many of them became the prime scholars of Japanese culture, and subsequently founded and encouraged programs to train students to also become scholars.

Today, however, the climate and economy is different.  More people want to make a living with their language skills, without years of research and school, and very few people start learning Japanese because of wars or classical literature anymore.  Many programs do not know how to approach this.  How do you train a translator? How do you train an interpreter? How do you recalibrate programs so they focus more on active skills, and fields such as business or translation, rather than a diehard adherence to reading, grammar and rote learning of kanji?  How will they address the current needs and desires of their students?  Sadly, many programs are slow to change, and many will find this their demise, as there is a new breed of Japanese learner; one who prefers the Nikkei over the Genji, Nobuo Uematsu over Gagaku, and one who views language not just as a medium but as a calling and a profession.  Yet this new breed of learner has almost zero representation in universities.  Very few faculty members in Japanese departments have had professional experience in translation, business, or any non-scholarly field, and for those that do it usually wasn’t within the last 15 years.  Academia has changed a bit in these last 15 years.  Translation, however, has changed by unimaginable leaps and bounds.

The Jump from Academia to Translation

The reasons I ultimately chose translation over academia are numerous, but the main one is because I don’t have just one field of interest.  I am interested in many things, and I love to learn, not just about Japanese history or culture but about everything.  Yet input without output is stagnation, and I wanted to use everything I learned; I wanted something that would test every bit of my knowledge, and force me to learn more.  A love of learning happens to be a trait that lends itself extremely well to translation.  I also wanted to make full use of my Japanese language skills.  I have no doubt that people in Master’s and PhD programs read so much in Japanese that they verge on seppuku at times, but it’s usually centered around a particular field or aspect of Japanese culture or history, whereas I have just a general interest about many things.  I never felt the urge to become a specialist in one particular area.  I also greatly enjoy speaking/listening, thus my foray into interpretation as well.  Just a basic note: translation and interpretation are completely different.  Translation deals with writing, interpretation deals with speaking – think of the movie “The Interpreter.”

What is professional translation actually like?

Before anything else, let’s talk about what the world of professional translation is actually like.  When one thinks of Japanese translation, perhaps they imagine someone translating manga or Japanese literature in Microsoft Word, or dare I say by pen and paper, pondering over the meaning and nuance of each word.  In reality, 90% of ALL translation is technical translation.  This is true for all languages, not just Japanese.  For Japanese, some of the biggest markets for translation are automotive, pharmaceutical, patents, biotechnology, and business/finance.  There are very few full-time translators who can make a living off translating literature or manga, although it is possible if you already have a job to sustain yourself, such as English teaching, or are married to someone with a job and want something to do on the side.  Especially for manga, there are many people out there willing to translate it for free (google “crowdsourcing” in your free time), and a lot of it is just poorly written in Japanese, yet if you reflect that in your English translation you will not get another job.  I don’t mean for this to discourage anyone, as I’m sure these are the fields of translation most students are interested in, and of course someone has to translate them, and that someone could be you.  However, manga and literature are still the smallest, least profitable, and not to mention hardest fields.  Yes, technical translation IS easier, due to the almost complete lack of ambiguity.

In terms of language combination for Japanese, the biggest market is Japanese->English translation.  English’s role as a lingua franca holds true even in translation, as many companies have their translations initially translated into English, and then translated into other languages. For example, if a Lithuanian translation agency has to translate a Lithuanian document into Korean, it’s likely to have the document translated into English first, then have it translated into Korean.  This is because much more people can do English->Korean than Lithuanian->Korean.  Thus, English turns into a medium for translating documents; the documents being translated into Japanese->English are often going to be translated into several other languages as well, after they are translated into English.  This increases demand for English speakers dramatically, and is good for most people reading this, as their native language is probably English, and chances are their strong point in Japanese is passive (reading) knowledge.  The market for English->Japanese translation is, predictably, much smaller.  There is demand for Japanese->German, Japanese->Chinese, but it is still nowhere near Japanese->English.

Just a side note, I mentioned Microsoft Word earlier, but many translators, especially those working in a professional setting, use technology to boost their productivity, such as advanced virtual glossaries and “translation memories.”  Many companies are now even requiring their translators to use these tools, collectively called CAT tools – Computer Assisted Translation. Being familiar with these will give you a significant boost when looking for jobs.  And, as a further side note, humans are not going to be replaced with machine translation anytime soon, especially not for Japanese.

What makes a good translator?

What traits are important for the translation profession?  The ideal translator is flexible, adaptable, good with technology (or willing to become good with it), an excellent writer, and can learn foreign concepts quickly.  The synthesis of these traits results in an analytical person who pays close attention to detail.  Hold on there a second.  Did I mention biotechnology? Automotive?! The vast majority of translators, including myself, come from an academic background, we are 文系, not 理系.  What do we do?!  This may seem like a hindrance at first, but in reality there are so many things a translator has to learn that even those who have a scientific or technical background are going to be encountering many fields they have no familiarity with.  Don’t get me wrong though, if you have a background in economics, law, or technical fields then other translators will worship you as a god.  But how does one actually learn these things? It’s not as hard as it sounds.  Don’t know what a fuel injector is? Look it up.  Don’t what it means when a market is bullish? Look it up.  Almost everything you need to know you can find online for free, you just need good research skills.  Research skills are what makes or breaks a translator.

The biggest struggle when you translate into English is sounding like the engineer who wrote about fuel injectors in Japanese, or sounding like the analyst who wrote about bullish markets in Japanese.  Your writing in English must sound like that engineer or analyst wrote it in English themselves, and this is usually a matter of terminology.  Do you translate 設備投資 as “equipment investment” as the kanji literally means, and as the term that shows up in many online dictionaries? Or do you read about economics and finance, and find the term that’s actually used in English, “capital investment”?  Do you translate 排気量 as “emissions”? Or have you read the basics about a car engine, and know what it’s really referring to, and what it’s really called is “displacement”? (The total volume of the space traversed by the pistons).  This is what distinguishes anyone just putting random words into Google translate from an actual translator.  Translation is not about words, it is about concepts and images.

How do I know if I’m ready to do translation?  How can I prepare?

How does one even know if they are ready to translate yet?  The quick and dirty answer is that many translation agencies will give you a test, and if you never hear back from them after taking it, then you aren’t ready.  When you translate, all that matters is what the client wants.  If your language skills are sub-par, but the client likes how you write, then congratulations, you are ready.  If your language skills are great, but the client doesn’t like what you do, then unfortunately you are not ready.  There is a classic saying about translation: translation is like a mistress; if it is beautiful it is not loyal, if it is loyal it is not beautiful.  But this is not a translation theory class where you sit around and discuss subtle nuances and whose translation is best.  In reality, your client decides whether it is loyal, and your client decides whether it is beautiful.  Most serious companies have comprehensive quality assurance steps, however, so don’t think you can just BS your way through a translation.

The longer answer to the above is that to get to the level of effective translation you need to read A LOT.  Read the newspaper everyday in both English and Japanese, study economics, basic scientific principles, the basics of biotechnology, how a car engine works, etc.  A translator IS NOT an expert in these things, his knowledge (or her knowledge! translators are overwhelmingly female, something to do with being better at communication..*cough*) is what the Japanese refer to as 広く浅く, wide and shallow; a translator just needs to know enough to make it sound like an expert wrote the English translation.  Your English must also be impeccable.  If your English is not impeccable, if it’s just average, then there’s not a lot of reason to hire you over a Japanese person whose English is also average, because that Japanese person can probably grasp the original Japanese source material better than you can, and the agency’s editor can fix his English after.

Photo by Jerry Bunkers

Realities of translation

Translation is not just about translating the document, however.  I believe anyone with decent language skills could produce a viable translation if given enough time.  Translation is also about SPEED.  A translator just starting out will be expected to translate 2,000 words a day.  A seasoned translator does 3,000 words a day, usually at around 500 words an hour.  A beginning translator will not be doing anywhere near 500 words an hour, at least of very high quality, which means they will be spending at least 7-8 hours doing those 2,000 words, everyday. You just don’t have the time to look up each word, to ask friends or get help.  You need some background knowledge of the material you are translating beforehand.  Your Japanese needs to be good enough to not trip on one or two words you don’t know, because there will always be words you don’t know.  You need to translate it into ENGLISH, not Japlish.  A lot of English natives get too caught up by the Japanese, and create unnatural sounding sentences in English because they are so obsessed with getting every little detail.  This goes back to “what the client wants” and “translating the image,” not the words.  The client doesn’t want to see unnatural English anymore than he wants to see what Google translate can regurgitate.  In the field of translation, those of you who have English as your native language are very lucky, but only if you take advantage of it.

Things like passing JLPT 1-kyuu aren’t real indicators of how you will handle translation.  Instead, get a newspaper, magazine, or document in Japanese.  Read a few sentences in Japanese, and then put it away.  Ask yourself, what did I just read? What was it talking about?  What is the image in your head? Can you describe it in English?  Can you analyze it?  Many Japanese learners are so used to being told that their Japanese is amazing by their friends and teachers that it can be hard to admit to ourselves that our language skills could actually use some work.  The truly successful translator is humble enough to realize that even basic grammar is worth his time to review and refine.

OK, I’m not quite at the level to do professional translation, but I want to be.  What can I do?

I suspect many people reading this know they aren’t quite at this level just yet, but are very interested in becoming more advanced so that they can do translation themselves.  Let’s talk about how to make this happen. Let’s say you have a BA in Japanese; you took 3-4 years of Japanese in university, and most likely have had some experience in Japan.  In this case, you are already well on your way to becoming a Japanese translator.  Individual variation notwithstanding, you are much closer to becoming a Japanese translator, than you are a Japanese professor.  But you still have work to do.  Here is a great list of the 10 best ways you can prepare for a career in translation, given by one of the top graduate schools for translation and interpretation.  It covers a lot of what I’ve said and more.

That seems like a lot of work.  Is it really worth it?

This may seem like a daunting list, so let’s talk about some of the benefits of a career in translation, and why it’s worth it.  Japanese->English is one of the most lucrative combinations for translation (alongside Arabic, Korean, German, and Chinese) with a high demand for decent translators, so you could be very well off if you go this route and play your cards right.  This is your hard work and suffering paying off.  Ever felt like crap when someone said “You only speak 2 language?! My friend speaks 4! English, Spanish, Italian, French!”  Well, guess what, Japanese translation pays more than all of those combined, and the demand is much much greater.  You have learned a language where you can truly distinguish yourself, and make yourself stand out.  I also do Chinese->English translation a few times a month, and on average Japanese->English still pays more (this would be a good counter to the “Why didn’t you learn Chinese?” remarks).  This fact will probably shock people, but it’s mainly because of the large amount of Chinese people who are actually fairly good at English, versus the startling lack of Japanese who aren’t.  Chinese make up one of the largest groups of immigrants, exchange students, and foreign workers in many countries, whereas Japanese have largely stopped going abroad altogether.  There are also more people learning Chinese now, and more government support behind programs to teach people Chinese (it is considered a “critical language” by the U.S. government now). In the end, a large supply leads to a weak demand, regardless of the intrinsic value of anything.  The value of currencies is also a very large factor.

The two paths of translation – Freelance vs. In-house


OK, back on track.  There are two ways to go about a career in translation: freelance and in-house.  Freelance translators get their work from clients and agencies, which they must find on their own and maintain good relations with.  The advantage of freelance is freedom.  Rarely do you ever meet clients face to face anymore; many translators translate for years these days without ever seeing who they are translating for.  This is because all the translation is done on the computer, and all the transactions and correspondences occur online.  This basically means you can work from home, OR work from anywhere you want.  Want to stay in Thailand for a month and go to the beaches?  Eat kimchi jiggae in Seoul? Go right ahead.  Bring your laptop and you can do your work from anywhere!  Just realize that speed and productivity are still the most important things for translators, and time differences between your client and yourself can make for some awkward work hours.  You need to be on-call for your steady clients, and reply within a few hours at the very latest if they contact you.

Freedom comes with a price, though.  Immigration policies of countries like Japan and the EU are strict, and you will not be able to live in Japan or many countries permanently (i.e. more than 30-90 days at a time) doing freelance work; you will need a company to sponsor you, or you will need to marry a native.  There are some ways to get around this, but they are beyond the scope of this article.  In the U.S. when you have a job your employer pays half of your social security tax, and you pay the other half.  When you are freelance, you pay all of it.  There are also other taxes for being self-employed.  This is offset by the fact that you can claim many things that you buy as business-related (e.g. for your “home office”) and can get tax deductions, though the IRS will definitely be keeping its eye on you.  Anyways, if you are someone who loves freedom, are disciplined and organized, and able to keep calm if you suddenly have a drop in your income, then freelance may be for you.  As I said before, the Japanese->English translation market is particularly lucrative; it is more likely you will have to turn down work than beg for work IF you are a decent translator.  Starting out and finding clients is the most difficult part.  It should be mentioned that a certain degree of social skills are also important to make this happen, and important in general for freelancers, even if the interactions are not face-to-face.

The two paths of translation – Freelance vs. In-house


Then there’s in-house translation, which is translation at a company.  In-house translation positions used to be common, but are now fairly rare among most languages, as many companies now just hire one project manager (who often doesn’t even speak the language) who contacts freelance translators or agencies around the world and outsources the work.  This is much cheaper than training new hires, giving them benefits, etc.  However there are still a good number of in-house positions for Japanese, both in the U.S. and Japan (if you want to both translate full-time and live in Japan, this is ideal).  The great parts of in-house translation are on-the-job training, a steady income, and benefits.  The downside is that you don’t really get to pick what you translate, and you will have rigid work hours (though some people prefer a set 9-5 schedule).  Do not underestimate on-the-job training; the difference between having a mentor and someone to correct you can be the difference between life and death in translation.  It is a HUGE advantage of in-house, even more than a steady income.  Not to mention that you are getting paid and trained at the same time.

You can always mix and match as well, for example doing both in-house and freelance for maximum cash-flow, or doing in-house for 2-3 years then going freelance after you have a steady client base and advanced training.  The choice is yours, and they all have advantages and disadvantages.  I should note that good in-house positions generally look for people with a few years of translation experience, or an advanced degree in translation.  There are also certain idiosyncrasies depending on the industry.  For example, companies recruiting for in-house translation positions in the finance industry usually refuse to hire anyone except those who have a background or actual experience in finance and business, regardless of their translation qualifications.  The same is somewhat true of science-related in-house positions.  For legal and medical-related positions, it’s hard to find actual lawyers or doctors who have the time or desire to do translation, so the barriers and prerequisites to entry tend to be less strict.  I spent most of this article talking about all the things a translator must learn, but specialization is perfectly fine too (e.g. translating ONLY automotive-related materials, or patents, etc.) if the demand for that field is great enough.  In any case the bottom line is this: start working on your background knowledge, your 背景知識 ASAP, especially if you have a particular field in mind.


That’s it for now.  I hope you now have a realistic view of translation as a career, and the ways you can prepare for that career.  Whether you choose to become a professional translator or an academic, any path worth following will always take time and work.

If there is a specific area people want to know more about, I’m sure there will be an article on it sometime in the future.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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63 Responses to The Realities and Benefits of Translation as a Full-time Job – An Introduction

  1. toranosuke says:

    Thanks for posting about this. It’s good to hear more about the field, your approach, and your thoughts. Personally, I have no patience for (or interest in) technical translation – I see how much time my roommate puts into it, and how often he pulls all-nighters to finish something with a tight deadline & quick turn-around time. But I appreciate that that’s the majority of the work out there, and the way to make money at translation. If you’re that much into the language, more so than a specific field, then go for it. I envy you your ability to put up with it.

    I’ve done a bit of freelance translation here and there myself – mostly materials related to the arts & museums field – and am hoping to continue to do more of that in future, though I appreciate that it’s extremely unlikely that that could ever be my primary job. It will have to only be something I do on the side.

    But, anyway, again, thanks for sharing this very well-written and thorough introduction to pursuing work (or a career) as a translator. Academia pushes us (only) into being academics, when there are so many other possibilities. It’s good to hear more about those alternative possibilities, and how to pursue them.

  2. Emma says:

    Thanks so, so much for this article! It spoke to a lot of the questions I had as a recent B.A. grad about what a career in translation might be like. If you ever have time to write for the blog again, I would love to hear your thoughts on interpretation! 🙂 Thanks again.

  3. 3jay says:

    Reblogged this on 日本語の旅 and commented:
    I hope I can build on what I have learnt till now , this post give me a fair idea what I need to be doing and that I have made a good choice about studying Japanese as my motive was always professional as I have never been exposed to any Japanese media in my life prior to this.

  4. Author says:

    As James Baldwin once said, the price one pays for pursuing any calling is an immediate knowledge of its ugly side, and unfortunately tight deadlines are a reality of the translation profession as a whole, particularly if you make a living solely off of doing translation. In that sense I can see where translating things related to the arts part-time can be much more enjoyable – you get to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak, without the pressure of feeling that it’s what puts bread on the table. Thank you for your comments!

    My next article will definitely be on interpretation, as I think there’s even less known about it than translation, with people often mixing the two together even though interpretation is radically different. Thanks for reading!

  5. Leah says:

    Great article! As someone who does translation work, I’m quite interested in CAT–do you have any recommended software or websites?

  6. Author says:

    Hi Leah
    Probably the most well-known CAT tool (and most requested by clients) is a Translation Memory (TM) called Trados. It is expensive, and has a steep learning curve, but is very powerful. A free, lighter version that’s entirely online is Wordfast It is a good introduction into the world of translation memories, though still takes a bit of time to master. Be careful when putting full segments of your translation into online translation memories or translators (particularly Google Translate), as Google and other websites store this information on their server, which can be searched for and found if you know the right methods. Many clients will ask you to keep their translation confidential to protect their information and secrets from competitors, which is why this is a problem.

    • manami says:

      Hello Author,

      Can you give me some advice? My mother tongue is Japanese. Will I be able to make a living as a scientific/medical English to Japanese translator? I thought I could translate into English but I learned you translate into your mother tongue. I’m worreid as the market for English to Japanese is much smaller. I am licensed as a pharmacist in Japan, New York and Massachusetts and work as a pharmacist in New York and Massachusetts. I have a Ph.D. in nutrition from Columbia University. I have some experience in translation, not a lot.

      Paula, thank you for your response.

      • Author says:

        I am less familiar with the English into Japanese market. The market may be smaller, but there are also not as many qualified English into Japanese translators as there are Japanese into English ones. Thus, for someone with excellent qualifications like yourself, it’s all going to come down to how you advertise yourself and how you search for work. You should stress that you are first and foremost an active practitioner in your field, rather than a scientific/medical translator, and highlight your time at Columbia to assert that you are comfortable dealing with your field in both English and Japanese.

        If you intend to apply for work with American companies and agencies, you will also really need to have your resume checked by an American who is either used to hiring people (a hiring manager, for example) or a professional editor who has experience with resume-building. This is because the format in which your skills are highlighted is very important, and one tiny mistake in English (such as how you spelled worreid, instead of worried) is all it takes for someone to throw away your resume, so be careful. I have never accepted work from a Japanese agency, so I cannot say what they look for specifically, but I do know they put more stress on experience than qualifications (more so than American agencies/companies). Have to run now, but hope that helps!


        • manami says:


          Thank you so very much for your helpful advice. I should have checked how I spelled worried. I will definitely have my resume checked by a qualified American. I will start slow as I have a full-time job rather than rush and make mistakes.

  7. Pingback: Resources: Websites on Translation | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  8. puol says:

    I can do a BA in translation, in university. But, would I have to a Masters to get a job, or would I be able to find a job after 4 years of university….

    Thanks! your writing and article is superb!! It really helped me out.. and I never knew one could do a BA in Japanese!! That is interesting! Thanks again

    • Author says:

      I actually would not recommend doing a BA in Translation. The primary reason is that many academic institutions focus on translating literature, which almost no translator in the real world makes a living off of. Usually the people who translate literature already have full-time jobs to support themselves, such as by being a professor, and the professors of translation in general at most institutions have no recent experience of what it’s like to live and survive as a professional translator (most do not even know what CAT tools are).

      If you were going to do a BA in Translation, I would combine it with something marketable (engineering/science/pre-med/IT/computer science, etc.). Very few people who choose liberal arts degrees are finding well-paying jobs after 4 years of university right now, and more schooling may be required no matter which path you choose.

      Also, unless you have already been studying Japanese for a few years, four years of Japanese in university won’t be enough to do serious translation. You will realistically need some time spent living in Japan. Many universities offer good study abroad programs for this, so I would check with your school.


      • anna says:

        Hi author,
        I am a sophmore in high school, and I am currently in my second year of Japanese. I was planning to take Japanese through out college to become a manga translator; however i was also going to do either business or paralegal as well. What would be the best one to choose, or should i choose both? And honestly after reading I would just want to be a translator in general. Also, if there are any good colleges located in the U.S. that will help me with my ambitions please let me know. Thank you!😊

  9. Jeanette T says:

    This is such a brilliant and informative article. I am currently doing my Masters in Translation and am specializing in legal and technical translation, however could very well benefit from some of the advice on here. It is very true that the ability to understand the overall concept is paramount and not just the words on the page. Technical is particularly difficult for me because I am not so good at understanding logic or viualizing some of the concepts the original is trying to communicate. It is true that you need to work on your 背景知識 as well. I used to work at one agency once where I worked with a guy whose Japanese was poor but whose ability to understand technical writing with almost no context was brilliant. In some ways it definitely is more useful than the language skills themselves…

  10. KaiTofu says:


    Thank you very much for this insightful article. I am currently finishing up my BA in Japanese and I am constantly suffering from the ever-dying question “What to do next?” I thought about translation as well as possibly teaching in Japan for a year or two. However, I am still at a standstill as to what to do with my degree. I really love learning the language but I have difficulty finding my particular strengths to mold it into a career.

    I thought about going into graduate school for a Masters in Japanese Studies. Do you think that would be worth it? Or am I just spending more time and money? I know the follow up question would be “Well, what do you want to do?”

    In all actuality, I do not know what I want to do.

    On a different note, how did you effectively learn Japanese to translate?

    Thank you!

    • Author says:

      Well, I guess instead of asking what you want to do, I can tell you what most Master’s programs in Japanese consist of and let you make an informed decision.

      The majority of Master’s programs in Japanese studies are geared to produce future professors and scholars of Japanese academia. As such, there is a lot of focus on reading in Japanese (usually literature), writing essays (typically in English, not Japanese), and doing academic research in both English and Japanese. You do not typically take any additional Japanese classes, unless it is something like classical Japanese, or unless your Japanese is at a level that can benefit from undergraduate instruction. In any case, from a purely linguistic standpoint your reading becomes fairly good, but your speaking and listening not so much, assuming the program is based in the US.

      Realistically (and taking the current economic situation into account) the above will only be useful if you plan to teach someday or do something in academia. It is doubtful you would have the Japanese required to survive in a true translation or interpretation-related professional setting after an MA in Japanese Studies unless you have had some special training, such as IUC Yokohama, MIIS, or extended time living in Japan + systematic instruction (such as if the MA is conducted in Japan, for example).

      If you are not sure what you want to do yet, maybe you should consider applying to JET. You will be making money, living in Japan, and more likely than not be living in the boondocks, where very few people even know basic greetings in English. IUC Yokohama is also a good option if you can get a partial or full scholarship, but they like to see that you have some type of (mostly academic-related) goal you’d like to achieve.

      I became able to translate by reading a lot in both Japanese and English, on a wide variety of topics. I got to the point where I could read newspapers and most literature without a dictionary (this took several years in itself), and then started giving myself a shallow but useful understanding of various fields, such as economics, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, etc. in both languages (your high school textbooks could come in useful again). To that end, my tips would be to read everyday, challenge yourself, don’t cram vocabulary and kanji in isolation, and try to have fun while doing it.

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  12. Thank you so much for posting this. I’m thinking about starting a career in professional Japanese-English translation, and I can’t express in either language how much perspective this has given me. Thank you! I’m new to this blog, but I look forward to reading more!

  13. Paula–great article! May I share with friends? Was surfing around looking for Spanish-to-English translation work and ran across your excellent piece of writing! Just shot you an email, by the way–Dan Villarreal, Taipei, Taiwan–Licensed Court Interpreter # 315, Spanish-English, Texas (Master designation)

  14. Jack says:

    Do you know how much Japanese translators make a year? Sorry if I might of missed it in the article you wrote but I am just curious. Online I see about 40,000 a year. However, my teacher says around 100,000.

    • Author says:

      It strongly depends on qualifications and background. Someone without credentials and experience who is translating non-technical material (literature or things that people consider “hobbies”) could be making as low as $30-40k. It will never be as high as $100,000 for someone just starting out though. For someone that does Japanese->English and has advanced translation credentials (such as an advanced degree) but no previous experience and a pure liberal arts background, a starting salary in the neighborhood of $55-60k is more realistic. Experience and a technical background will push that number higher, with experience being the most important factor.

      • Ton says:

        What are the higher paying fields in Japanese > English translation and around how much could you expect to earn starting out in them?

        • Author says:

          The highest paying fields in J>E translation are related to medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and patents. The starting salary at an in-house position in any of these will probably be anywhere from $60k to $90k, BUT they are all fields which have a high barrier to entry (or else they wouldn’t pay so much, right?) You will need a few years professional translation experience to be considered (in-house preferred over freelance), and a background in the field in question. Don’t take this to mean you need to have gone to med school or law school; you can teach yourself the basics of these fields on your own and as long as you understand what you are translating, you have a chance. You don’t need to know everything about the field, just what’s in the translations.

  15. D says:

    Thank you for a very helpful article! What advice would you have for finding an in-house J->E translation job in Japan (for someone with zero previous in-house experience, and a little freelance experience)?

    • Author says:

      It depends on a few factors. Do you live in Japan already (can you work legally)? Are you a Japanese citizen or foreign national? You can e-mail me your specific background (education, location, experience etc.) and I can give you advice on the basis of that.

  16. Pingback: Let’s Talk Japan Podcast, Episode 19 – Japanese Translation & Interpretation |

  17. Pingback: Let’s Talk Japan Podcast, Episode 19 – Japanese Translation & Interpretation | JETAADC

  18. Nice article. I taught myself translation and have been doing it for the past 20+ years. Grew up in a household speaking my mother but second language, so good head start. Living there and speaking the language really helped, then translation work after that, as you keep learning since you are basically paid to look into the dictionary or consult with natives. So you learn another language and subjects while at it, but quality is number one and you need to make sure it’s good. The best way I found to enter this industry is by approaching as many translation agencies as possible:

  19. Rebecca says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I’ve been planning to become a J>E translator since I was in high school, but the exact way I could get there was a bit vague, so I just tried to plan out my own path. I have a BA in Japanese Language & Literature, I studied at Waseda University’s Intensive Japanese Program for a year, and then went back to Japan for two more years in JET. My kanji skills were weak, so I couldn’t manage the CIR position I wanted, but I learned a lot by teaching English in the boondocks!

    I got back from Japan in the fall of 2012, and failed MISERABLY at getting an in-house translation job due to a painful “lack of professional translation experience”. I know I want to start out in-house, for the very pros you listed above, and I know I want to do translation over interpretation, but I don’t have a specific field in mind. I suppose the tourism industry wouldn’t be bad, but I’m a quick study and do very well with science and mechanical concepts. Anyway, since I’ve gone so long living on my JET savings, I had to do something and applied for London Metropolitan University’s MA Japanese Translation (even though I’m a US citizen) because it’s only one year and has practical classes, such as Translation Programs and Specialized Translation, as well as an internship at a translation agency.

    I’ve been wondering if the cost will be worth the debt, though (alright, panicking over it)… but from what you’ve said, an advanced translation degree will give me a higher pay scale starting out. Is that true? Do you think getting an MA Translation is worth it? I would really appreciate some advice on getting an in-house translation job without the MA or after I graduate. For example, is there a better market starting out in Japan over America?

    • Author says:


      You find yourself in a position that many people in translation (among other fields) face: in order to get a job they need experience, but in order to get experience they need a job. One way to attempt to bypass this catch-22 is to get an MA in a related field, as you are currently considering. The main benefits of an MA in translation is that for many jobs the fact that you have an MA puts you ahead of anyone with a BA, regardless of whatever field your MA is in. It also gives you some time you can regard as “professional translation experience” and ideally will give you a network of alumni that can help pass your name along. The debt is a serious issue, but you have to think in the long-term – perhaps you should research the lifetime earnings of a liberal arts BA holder versus a liberal arts MA holder and see if the difference is significant enough to justify the debt (yes, they do have statistics for such things!).

      That being said, employers value experience at least as much as education, so if you can get an in-house job and some years of experience without an MA, then more power to you. In this case, you wouldn’t really need an advanced degree.

      The market is better in the US, and it will also be easier to start out there as well. I feel Japanese value actual translation experience a bit more than Americans, whereas Americans are more willing to let someone with advanced training but no actual experience have a shot. You also need to consider that with the yen weakening as much as it is against the dollar that it may be much harder for you to pay back USD-denominated student loans if you are earning Japanese yen.

      That’s all for now, drop me an e-mail ( or and we can discuss things further!


  20. Joyce says:

    I am so happy I found this article! I am currently a junior in high school that is considering pursuing a career as a translator for the United Nations (Korean–> English). Although this article pertains specifically to Japanese, I am hoping that there are many overlaps in the experiences of translation as a full-time job in Korean and Japanese. If the job of Korean translators is anything like that of Japanese translators, translation is something I definitely want to pursue. I was born in the U.S. and I grew up speaking both English and Korean. I love Korean culture, and Korean is like second nature to me, but do you think that this is enough for a career in translation? What should I do to prepare myself to become a translator?

    • Author says:

      Hi Joyce,

      I think your background is more than enough for a career in translation. Being bilingual doesn’t make someone a good translator, or even a translator at all, but it does gives you a distinct advantage over people like me who didn’t start learning their second language until their teens or later. You also have the advantage of being a US citizen (I’m assuming you are since you were born here), as the US government considers Korean a critical language but most speakers of Korean in the US are not US citizens. This means that you would be in demand in the public sector as well, with agencies like the FBI, CIA, etc.

      In terms of preparing yourself for a career in translation, I would study whatever you want to study in university, there’s no point in forcing yourself to go into a major you hate, but over the course of your university career try to make time and take a class in any of these:

      Economics 101 (Macroeconomics moreso than Microeconomics)
      Linguistics 101
      Law 101
      Any course on electronics (or Physics) preferably aimed at non-majors – unless you plan to major in science/engineering of course!
      Korean and/or US History (or more generally, East Asian and/or Western history)
      Public Speaking (you said you want to be a translator rather than an interpreter, but very few people know the difference, including employers, so you might as well be prepared)

      Some of these you’ll probably have to take anyways to fulfill education requirements, and others can probably be applied towards your overall graduation requirements (since most universities require you to take a certain amount of courses outside your field). Also, some universities offer courses like Law for Non-Majors or Economics for Non-Majors, and I would encourage you to take those unless they are actually your major.

      You can also refer to this list for preparation advice:

      Send me an e-mail at, I will probably be able to think of more advice later!


  21. Aaron says:

    Thanks a lot for writing this article, it’s answered a lot of questions I’ve had about translation as a career. I regret to say that I didn’t think too hard about my own path in college and decided that I’d just learn Japanese and hope a job would fall into my lap. I realize now, of course, that most people generally don’t major in just a language, but I’m a Junior in college now, and I haven’t invested any time into any other fields. Of course, now I’m more determined than ever to become a translator, and I’m taking steps on my own to make sure I can excel beyond my peers, but being able to find a job is still something that I’m rather worried about.

    I do have a lot of questions still, of course, but the one I’m most concerned about is this: how much would a portfolio matter in getting a job? I’ve been volunteering with an unofficial English translation with a certain Japanese game, and I’m saving everything I do. I’ve even begun using Wordfast (which I found out about thanks to this article), but I’m wondering just how much any of this will matter. Since I’m not doing this in a professional environment and it’s for a video game, will employers look at my portfolio or even care that I have one?

    I find translation to be a lot of fun, and I’d like to keep doing it in my free time while I’m still in school, but it’d also be nice to know that this will actually help with a future career.

    • Author says:

      Hey Aaron

      Translators don’t really have portfolios; they mainly rely on their resumes. Everything you are doing right now should go on your resume under “Translation Experience” or an equivalent category, and you should also have a category listing “Skills” under which you should put Wordfast. Creating a resume these days is a bit of an art form, so I recommend you talk with your academic adviser for advice. Also consider registering a LinkedIn profile.

      I have a friend who works as one of several in-house translators at 2K Games, so video game translation is definitely possible. These big publishers and gaming companies that can afford a translation department will want to see experience with video game translation and that you have a passion for it, but other employers such as translation agencies aren’t likely to consider anything except professional experience or advanced qualifications (you’d rather work for the former anyways).

      I don’t know how long you’ve been studying Japanese, but 3-4 years of university Japanese is going to be very difficult to pull off in the translation world for anything besides video games. I have a few suggestions on how to accumulate some more language skills, professional skills, knowledge, and maybe even some money:

      The JET Programme
      I never did JET myself, but I know it’s a good way to save money and improve your Japanese, because chances are they will send you to the boondocks of Japan. The process to apply is long, so start early.

      IUC Yokohama
      Both I and the author of this blog are graduates of IUC, an advanced language training program located in Japan. It will give you time to build up your language skills and pursue any topics in Japanese that will be useful to you in the future. Most students receive at least partial scholarships.

      A translation company that actively recruits freelance translators. I haven’t tried them but it looks like a very interesting environment, so maybe you should give it a try.

      A database of translators that you can register with to receive work. You will be competing with many professionals though.

      An online education platform that offers free classes from national and international institutions on a wide variety of subjects. You want want to look into some classes on Economics or Macroeconomics (or maybe even consider taking Economics 101 in your university before you graduate).

      Good luck and let me know if you have any other questions.

  22. tennis22drew says:

    This is a great write-up, thanks for taking the time.

  23. Pansy says:

    Great article! I’m about to graduate from a BA in Japanese Studies and I’m passionate about possibly moving to work in Europe, so I’m interested to know more about your work at the UN if possible? I never knew Japanese could come into play in translation in Europe.

  24. TC says:

    It is possible to self sponsor your own visa in Japan, but you need to show (at least temporarily) that there is 5M yen in your account.

  25. Spring says:


    I’m about to finish my time on JET and my future career goal is to be a translator. I have a B.S. in Biology and a B.A. in Internation studies. I also passes the JLPT 1級.

    My question is about specialization. I plan to get a masters degree in a field related to biology, and then work in that field for 4-5 years before going freelance or in-house. There seems to be demand for pharmaceuticals and patents, but is there demand for other fields like environmental consulting, sustainability, toxicology, or environmenal health?

    • Author says:

      I’m not sure what environmental consulting or environmental health is, but there is definitely demand for sustainability and toxicology. I can’t say what the demand will be like in 4-5 years, but I doubt it will ebb much.

  26. Hello. Any advice on how to get started on gaining fluency, classes, degrees, etc. pre-bachelor’s degree? What universities have good programs for someone interested in pursuing a career in Japanese to English translations? Watashi wa daigaku no ichinensei desu. I have had a long-term interest in Japanese and want to pursue it in some way. Translation would probably be much better for me than interpretation as I find written communication (in English) much easier than auditory/oral stuff, and I have a natural talent and intuition for writing. I just don’t know where to start.

    • Author says:

      As the article points out, the foundation for a successful translator is excellent language skills, so I would focus on classes for Japanese itself. They will probably have some at your university. There really is no upper limit on the amount of classes you should be taking; I almost never find anyone with good enough language skills before they are thrown into the deep end of professional translation pool. If your university doesn’t have classes or you took them all, consider some self-studying. For example, you could buy the Genki or Japnese for Busy People series off Amazon. That would be a start.

  27. thisisrids says:

    For training for interpretation work, which would you suggest between IUC or MIIS? My background is actually in business, but I currently have around N2 level Japanese proficiency.

    Thank you for the informative article!

    • Author says:

      IUC doesn’t actually offer any interpreting training – it’s almost purely a program geared towards future Western academics of Japan/Japanese culture, whereas MIIS is geared towards those looking to work in professional services with their language skills. Both will work on improving your Japanese, but MIIS has a much higher bar and is less forgiving of poor language skills (since the focus there is more on learning how to interpret/translate using Japanese & English and not actually formally learning the language itself anymore – i.e., they assume you are mostly fluent already in both languages). In other words, IUC is mostly geared around improving your Japanese from an intermediate-ish level of Japanese onwards, and MIIS is mostly geared around making sure you can survive as a translator/interpreter, with the assumption you are already mostly fluent.

      I can’t say anything about N2 level Japanese because the JLPT does not actually test speaking. I would say MIIS is at least N1 level, however, for the interpreting program. You could probably get by with less in the translation program. It never hurts to e-mail the program though and ask for a test. You should also look into the MA program at Kent State, and there are a few famous programs in the UK as well (University of Leeds and University of Bath, in particular).

      • N Dare says:


        I’ve been trying to email you at the email address you provided and it keeps sending me back an email saying “Delivery Status Failure”. Would you happen to have a new email? Thanks!

        • Jason says:

          I’ve been having this problem as well! Still have some questions regarding certificates in Japanese translation.

  28. Brittney says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Its very informative. It helped me get an basic idea of how to start towards a career in translation. I always found the Japanese language and culture fascinating. Which is one of the reasons why I want to pursue a BA in Japanese. I also want to pursue the JET program after I finish, and maybe study abroad for a year. Though I’m wondering if it would be best to minor is something as well like business? Do you have any suggestions?

  29. 1000yeardiary says:

    Reblogged this on 1000 Year Diary and commented:
    I must say this particular article covered some of my questions but in a much more articulate way but also backed up with experience.

  30. Susannah Donne says:

    I am a native English speaker with moderate knowledge of Swahili.. I would like to o back to school and take advanced courses in the language and then become a translator..and maybe occasional interpretor. Is this realistic? I know that the major languages of commerce these days (french, german, chinese, japanese, korean, arabic, spanish etc etc) do not include Swahili.. This is the language and culture I love most and would prefer to forge a career in. Perhaps the fact that it is more obscure would put me at an advantage ? Perhaps there is little work out there for an English-Swahili translator?? I would consider switching to Spanish if the the job prospects were considerably greater.. HELP!! I’ve done tons of online research but cannot get a clear read on this. P.S., please bear in mind my goal is to become a freelance translator so that I can potentially work from a collection of many places on the map. Any quick opinion is appreciated.

    Kindest Regards,
    Susannah Donne

  31. Daniel Burke says:


    Thanks for this article.

    I’ve been working as an in-hour translator/interpreter for an animation company since graduating with a masters from Kyoto U. last year (哲学). Great for getting large volumes of interpreting/translating experience very day, but unfortunately the pay is pretty low (below 4 million yen even prior to tax deductions). I’m itching to break into freelance as an alternative while I transition out of Japan and back into the academic path at home. Any suggestions on companies to try for somebody relatively new?

    Kind regards,


  32. thisisrids says:

    Hello! Do you have MA programs besides MIIS that you would recommend for more practical (vs theoretical) translation/interpretation? Thanks in advance!

  33. Srini Vasan says:

    Thank you so much for the article. It gives a hell lot of confidence for choosing this field. I’m basically a civil engineer, I worked for a year in construction field, then I started studying this language. Now I’ve completed upto N4 level and I can do conversation with Japanese people. I work as a assistant for a Japanese MD doing all his translation and interpretation work. I’m from India and I have this life time dream of working in USA for atleast a year. Is it possible?? If possible, what I need to do to get there.. Please advice me.

  34. Savannah says:

    I have a question, if I want to pursue the same career as you described here what would I need to do? Or what would you recommend.

  35. Savannah says:

    I have a question, I am a junior currently and next year I will be a senior, if I want to pursue the same career as you described here what would I need to do? Or what would you recommend. If you could please help me I would really appreciate it

  36. Karin says:

    Thank you so much!!!! I wish you were my mentor 😦

  37. This article is first-rate! I’ve just read this again (and again!) and have just shared it on my American Older Brother language learning page on Facebook and also on my LinkedIn page (I’m listed as Daniel Steve Villarreal, Ph.D. in case you would like to connect!). I’m a retired Licensed Court Interpreter (LCI# 315, Spanish-English, Texas–Master designation) who lives and teaches English in Taiwan and who’s morphing into translation bit-by-bit. Excellent work! If you happen to have any tips for me on how to get on board with organizations like the UN (or tips in general for interpreters who are shifting gears into translation), I’d love to hear them! Best regards, Dan Villarreal–Taipei

  38. tunedreality says:

    Sorry for being anonymous…loved your article! I am 31 and stuck with a career of well 9 to 9 work schedule!! I have post grad in management (precisely logistics)and I believe after 6 years of working in corporate arena I am nowhere and my downward career graph reflects that indeed! Am I too old to become a language translator?I used to enjoy writing essays while I was a kid and always felt I am a good communicator…all I can do now is opt for a certificate course start beginner course and be sincere about only worry is my age and the time it might take to create a ground for myself…looking for some insights!! I need to earn something while I learn for survival…

    • I’m a retired Licensed Court Interpreter (#315, Spanish-English, Texas–Master designation), retired from the courts of Bexar County (in San Antonio), Texas. I was 40-something years old when I did my training program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and I’ve worked in lots of venues. Your age and, believe it or not, your work experience will work in your favor because you know lots of stuff (general and specialized knowledge) outside of the classroom, as well as inside. So I’d say no, no, no, you’re not too old at all. In fact, I’ve now morphed into teaching (I live in Taipei, Taiwan–I’m a US citizen and expat, permanent resident here) and am now working on morphing into translation. I might name the novel and the movie “The Repeated Re-Morphing of Your American Older Brother!” So I say go for it. Your age is just a number–and not a very high number.
      Dan Villarreal
      Taipei, Taiwan

  39. Pingback: Resource: Translation Workshops | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  40. Akim omowalé ABDULRAHEEM says:

    thanks for your information. as from today, i will try to do as you explained in your text. THANKS AGAIN!

  41. Pingback: Resources: Translation and Interpretation | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  42. Dynasia says:

    This was extremely informative and so detailed! Thanks so much! I’ve been learning Japanese for 10 years and I want to work with it for a living. I do have questions. Do you uave suggestions on where to find these agencies or how to start networking?

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