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  • Writer's pictureZoe Womack

How to Become a Japanese-English Translator: Tips and Resources

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

By Zoe Womack

How to become a Japanese to English translator: Tips and Resources, EZo Translation, Zoe Womack, professional Japanese-English translation and linguistic services, translation blog

So you want to be a Japanese-English translator?


Perhaps you just want some tips on how to study Japanese, or some general advice about becoming a translator?


Or maybe you're just curious about the translation profession and are interested in getting some insight.


Well, you've come to the right place!



Introduction

Thanks to the popularity of Japanese anime and manga, more and more people are becoming interested in studying the Japanese language. Some people who are studying (or want to study) Japanese might decide that they would like to try their hand at becoming a Japanese to English translator or interpreter.


So, how exactly does one become a Japanese-English translator?


I've compiled some tips and lists of resources based on my own experience.



You can read my personal story below, or skip to whatever section you're most interested in by using the following links:



My journey to becoming a translator

Like many other people, I became interested in learning Japanese after I saw my first anime series when I was about 10 years old. But this was in Australia in the late 90s, before anime really started to become popular in the English-speaking world.


I decided that anime was cool, Japan was cool, and I needed to learn Japanese. So, instead of going to my local high school (which taught Indonesian), I applied for a school a bit further away that taught Japanese as a foreign language. I started learning Japanese in 2002, fell in love with it, and decided right from the start that I was going to be a Japanese-English translator some day.

Note about the Australian school system: At the time, high school in Australia went from Year 8 to Year 12 (when we are 13-17 years old).

Unfortunately, interest in studying Japanese was very low in Australia at that time. When I was in Year 10, I was the only one in my grade who wanted to continue studying Japanese. I received special permission to do a combination of studying with a tutor in the library, self-studying, and occasionally joining the Year 9 class.


That year, I was also able to go to Japan for the first time! I went on a 2-week homestay with a teacher and two other students from my school.


Zoe Womack, Professional Japanese to English translator, first trip to Japan, Kinkakuji, Kyoto. Japanese-English translation by a native English speaker.
Visiting Kinkakuji in Kyoto on my first trip to Japan in 2004.

My Japanese language education hit another setback the following year when my school stopped teaching Japanese entirely. For the last two years of high school, I was left learning via conference calls with another school, getting homework that needed to be faxed, and having "classes" with a teacher who didn't know how to teach. He often told me "I think your time would be best spent studying kanji by yourself" (even before a speaking test!), proceeded to talk with one of the other students for the rest of the call, forget I was there, and hang up without saying another word to me.


Needless to say, the lack of proper Japanese classes for those three years was detrimental to my Japanese ability. But despite the setbacks, I was still determined to make my dream come true!


I majored in Japanese at the University of Western Australia, where I struggled to catch up and bring my level back to where it should have been. I went to Japan on study abroad for a semester in 2009, which is when my Japanese ability finally improved dramatically. (Language immersion is important!)


And in the final year of my bachelor's degree, I found out that my university had plans to introduce a translation degree in the future! Unfortunately, it was nowhere near ready by the time I graduated. I ended up spending two more years at a different university doing a Graduate Certificate in Japanese while simultaneously going to TAFE (technical college) on Saturday mornings for an intensive Applied Japanese classes.


Eager to work in Japan, I applied for the JET Programme when I finished my Graduate Certificate at the end of 2011. I was accepted into the program and left for my new life teaching English in Japan as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in late July 2012.


When my time on the JET Programme was coming to an end five years later, I applied for several in-house translating positions in Japan. Although many of the job advertisements said "JLPT N2 required but N1 preferred", my JLPT N2 qualification just didn't cut it... I actually needed to have JLPT N1!

​The JLPT is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and is internationally recognised as being a reliable way of judging the Japanese level of non-native speakers.

While it doesn't test speaking, it does test competency in kanji, vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension and listening.

The JLPT starts at N5, the lowest level, and goes up to N1, the highest level.

A summary of each level can be found at the official JLPT website here.

After living in Japan for several years, I was finally able to pass JLPT N1 at the end of 2019!


I was still living in Japan when the pandemic hit and I fell into a bit of a rut. At the time, I was teaching English in Yokohama but desperately wanted to have another go at becoming a professional translator now that I felt more confident in my Japanese language skills.


After doing a bit of research, I found out that, not only did the Master of Translation Studies course now exist at the University of Western Australia, but it had recently added Japanese as a specialisation, and had even become Commonwealth supported just a few months prior!


I returned to Australia during the pandemic, completed a Master of Translation Studies, and graduated in December 2022 with a perfect GPA. I was even valedictorian at my graduation ceremony!


Check out my valedictory speech below. (Subtitles available in English and Japanese.)


My valedictory speech in December 2022, when I received my Master of Translation Studies. I talk about my journey to achieving my dream of becoming a translator.



How to become fluent in Japanese

If you want to be a Japanese-English translator, the first step is to become fluent in Japanese. There are various ways you can accomplish this, and many people will benefit from trying a variety of study methods until they find one that's perfect for them.

  • Take a Japanese class.

    • At school, university, TAFE/community college, etc.

    • Hire a tutor.

    • Take online lessons (I personally like italki, which offers both private and group lessons for Japanese.)

  • Study grammar, vocab and kanji using textbooks, flashcards, apps, etc.

    • Textbooks — I recommend any by the Japanese publishers アルク (alc) or アスク出版 (ask Publishing).

    • Memorisation apps like Anki, Wanikani or Memrise. (I'm not personally a fan of this method, but some people swear by it.)

    • Dictionary apps like Japanese are good because they list verb conjugations, show you the stroke order of the kanji, and often have example sentences.

    • Online dictionaries like Weblio, 英辞郎 and goo辞書

  • Study Japanese in Japanese to help get over the "intermediate plateau".

  • Use sites/apps such as News Web Easy to read and listen to Japanese news articles in simplified Japanese.

  • Watch YouTube videos:

  • Follow Japanese accounts (and accounts that teach Japanese) on social media. Here are some Instagram accounts that you may find useful:

  • Use mnemonics to help you remember different kanji, vocabulary, etc.

    • You could use the tips in the book Remembering the Kanji: A Complete Course on How Not to Forget the Meaning and Writing of Japanese Characters by James W. Heisig.

    • You could make up your own mnemonics. e.g., My mnemonic for remembering how to write 髪 (hair) is just "long me friend".

  • Use pronunciation/intonation apps like JAccent, or look for Japanese pronunciation textbooks that come with listening tracks.

  • Immerse yourself in the language (tips on that below!)


Contrary to what you may have been taught at school, Japanese is not "flat", as Dogen humorously demonstrates in his YouTube video "Japanese is flat" (38 seconds). Speaking with correct intonation is important if you want to sound fluent and avoid possible misunderstandings!


The best way to become fluent is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible without overwhelming yourself.


Make sure that the language input you are receiving is natural, native and correct. While studying in a classroom environment can be useful for learning the basics, be aware that the Japanese your fellow classmates are speaking is likely full of mistakes and mispronunciations!


Here are some ways you can immerse yourself in the language:

  • Live in Japan if it's an option.

  • Take one-on-one lessons with a teacher/tutor who is a native Japanese speaker.

    • Either in person or online. Again, I recommend italki for online lessons!

  • Listen to Japanese podcasts.

  • Watch Japanese YouTube, movies, shows, etc.

    • Japanese audio and Japanese subtitles is a good combination for studying at a high intermediate level.

    • Use a VPN set to Japan to get more options.

  • Follow Japanese accounts on social media.

    • y_haiku and taeko_ol both regularly post humorous Japanese content on Instagram.

  • Try shadowing.

    • Shadowing is when you listen to natural, native-level Japanese and repeat what you hear while trying to mimic the pronunciation and intonation. I recommend Shadowing 日本語を話そう! by the publisher くろしお出版.

  • Change the language settings on your devices and use websites in Japanese when possible.

  • Read Japanese news articles online.

  • Play games in Japanese.

  • Listen to Japanese music, learn the lyrics to Japanese songs and sing them at karaoke.


What are your favourite ways to study a language? Share them in the comments!


Japanese study, JLPT N1, JLPT N2, 日本語能力試験, fluent in Japanese,  professional Japanese to English translator, EZo Translation, Zoe Womack Japanese textbooks
Some of the Japanese textbooks I owned while living in Japan.


To be a good translator, however, knowing the language isn't enough. You also need a deep understanding of culture, events, places, important people, references, and many other things that may (and will!) come up in the texts that you translate. And for that, nothing beats living in the country and experiencing everything firsthand!


In-country experience is a big asset for a translator, since translation work involves knowing not just the structure of the language to be translated, but the cultural framework that surrounds it. (Corinne McKay, How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, Third Edition, page 28.)

Zoe Womack, Professional Japanese to English translator, wearing a kimono while on the JET Programme.
Me on the JET Programme, Kagoshima, 2012.

Skills you need and how to get them

Contrary to popular opinion, translating isn't "just" about knowing two languages or being able to communicate in those languages. You also need to be able to effectively transfer a message between those languages in a way that's appropriate for the text type, translation purpose, target audience and any other guidelines stipulated by the client.


And it is this transfer competence which distinguishes a translator from a bilingual person: translation competence is essentially about mediating between two languages and cultures rather than simply knowing and being competent in two languages and cultures. (Juliane House, Translation: The Basics, Chapter 2: Translation Competence, pg. 25)


Some of the skills you need to be a successful freelance translator:

  • Excellent comprehension skills in your source language (the language you translate from).

    • JLPT N2 is generally the bare minimum. Even when job advertisements in Japan say "the requirement is N2 but N1 is preferred", they will likely reject candidates without JLPT N1. (I know this from experience!)

  • Excellent writing skills in your target language (the language you translate into).

  • Awareness of grammatical and pragmatic differences and similarities between the languages, such as the differences/similarities in:

    • register

    • genre

    • rules of textual coherence and cohesion

  • A deep understanding of both cultures and the ability to mediate between them.

    • Knowledge of cultural similarities and differences relevant to each text, taking into account the (actual or assumed) prior knowledge of the target audience

  • Excellent research skills.

  • Constantly updated knowledge of translation technology.

    • Ability to use technology such as CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tools

  • In-depth knowledge of one or more areas of specialisation (e.g., If you want to translate legal texts, you should have a degree and/or experience in the legal industry.)

  • Business and marketing skills (especially if you're planning to be a freelancer!)

  • The ability to "read between the lines" and understand the intent of the words and not just their literal meaning. (The reading section of JLPT N1 is a good way to test your ability to do this!)


Some ways you can improve these skills:


Do you need any qualifications to become a translator?

The short answer: Not necessarily, but it is definitely better to have one!


Unlike some other professions, there is no standard qualification for becoming a translator. Qualifications in translation are fairly new, so many seasoned professionals don't have a degree in translation.


Theoretically, anyone could call themselves a translator and just start working as one, even now. And there are a lot of people who do just that. However, the difference in quality between a translation by a professional and an amateur is painfully obvious!


The importance of translation degrees

Newbie freelance translators will usually rely on translation agencies for work, at least until they can start attracting their own direct clients. And a lot of the more respectable translation agencies seem to have realised that hiring professional translators will guarantee high-quality work, happy clients, good reviews and repeat business, whereas hiring unqualified translators could result in low-quality translations, complaints from clients, and negative reviews.


There are many translation agencies that are becoming ISO-Certified, which means that they now require their translators to provide proof of one of the following:

  • a graduate degree in translation

  • a graduate degree in something other than translation and 2+ years of full-time, professional translating experience

  • 5+ years of full-time, professional translating experience


As someone just entering the profession, you could definitely see how it would be difficult to start getting work without a degree in translation!


Translation degrees are also useful to have as they teach the skills and knowledge necessary to be a successful professional translator.


My degree included a good balance of theory and practical skills, as well as assignments and weekly translation tasks so we could practise translating while getting feedback on our work. All of my lecturers were professional translators and/or interpreters who had real-world experience in the translation industry.

Skills and knowledge that I acquired during my translation degree include:

  • Different translation strategies and how to determine which one to use depending on the text type, translation purpose and target audience.

  • How to use CAT tools such as SDL Trados and MemoQ.

  • What is involved in localisation.

  • How to use parallel corpora to find different ways that words/phrases have been translated and in what context.

  • How to use monolingual corpora to check the usage and commonness of various collocations and phrases in different contexts and varieties of English.

  • How to create a basic translation corpus of my own to compare different translations of the same text.

  • Basic guidelines for subtitling, such as how many characters there should be per line, and how to adjust subtitles according to factors such as timing.

  • The advantages and disadvantages of subtitling and dubbing, what is involved in each, and what needs to be considered when doing audiovisual translation.

  • How to be objective and respectful when reviewing or proofreading translations by other translators.

  • How to objectively categorise translation errors according to the NAATI Error Categories.

  • Ethics for translators, how to spot a potential ethical issue as a professional, and what I should do in those situations.

  • The history of translation and the different translation theories and strategies used throughout history by translation scholars.

  • Practical advice for translating between Japanese and English, and how to handle the issues that arise due to the differences in grammar, culture, writing conventions, etc. (We also read a lot of useful passages from The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation by Yoko Hasegawa and Japanese-English Translation: An Advanced Guide by Judy Wakabayashi, both of which I highly recommend!)

  • The importance of respecting the author's wording and style when translating literary texts, and some strategies for preserving these aspects of a text in our translations.

During my degree, I also had the opportunity to do an internship at an actual translation company in order to get even more insight and practical experience working in the translation industry!


Certifications

Translator certification is another way to gain credibility as a professional translator and increase your earning potential.


In Australia, NAATI is responsible for setting the standards for translators and interpreters and holding certification tests. The tests are extremely rigorous and the testing conditions are very strict—for instance, by using proctoring software to ensure that applicants are not cheating. You can read more about NAATI Certified Translator test here.


In Australia, you must have NAATI certification in order to provide certified translations. Certified translations of official documents are usually necessary for things like visa applications or prescriptions for medications, which are often needed by people moving into the country.


In fact, it can be very difficult to get work within Australia without NAATI certification.


The equivalent to NAATI in the United States seems to be ATA Certification with the American Translators Association. However, according to the ATA, anyone can certify a translation in the US.


NAATI-endorsed Qualifications

Some translation courses in Australia, such as the Master of Translation Studies course that I completed at the University of Western Australia, are endorsed by NAATI. This means that NAATI has assessed that these courses teach the skills and knowledge necessary to be a professional translator or interpreter.


NAATI Endorsed Qualifications are tertiary translation and interpreting qualifications (diploma-level or higher) which have already been assessed by NAATI as teaching and assessing the skills and knowledge required by the translating and interpreting profession. (Endorsed Qualifications, NAATI website)


In-house or freelance?

There are two pathways for translators: in-house or freelance. An in-house translator is employed directly by a company, whereas a freelance translator is self-employed. There are advantages and disadvantages for both.

In-House

Freelance

Advantages

  • Stability of workload and income.

  • Paid leave and sick leave.

  • Often working directly with the company that needs the translation - can easily clarify intended meaning, etc.

  • Working in an office with co-workers (less isolation)

  • Don't need to do your own finances, marketing, client acquisition, etc.

  • Tax time is easier when your only income is from your employer (at least in Australia).

  • Freedom of being your own boss.

  • Decide when to work and what to work on.

  • Freedom to reject projects if you feel you want/need to.

  • Unlimited opportunities for growth, possibility of more earning potential (depending on market demand, your skills, marketing, etc.)

  • Can take time off whenever you want, as long as you meet your deadlines.

  • Can work from anywhere as long as you have a laptop and an internet connection!

  • You get to decide what services you offer or don't offer.

  • Often not required to have any official qualifications or certifications to get started (although having them is a huge advantage!)

Disadvantages

  • May be limited to the types of texts you're translating.

  • Possibly less opportunity for growth.

  • Less freedom when working for someone else.

  • Can't take time off whenever you like.

  • Can't work from wherever you like. (Might need to be in an office.)

  • More likely to need an official qualification or certification to get employed. (In Japan, JLPT N1 is often required. In Australia, a translation degree and NAATI certification is usually required.)

  • Not many in-house translation positions available (depending on your location).

  • Could have unsteady workload and income, especially at first.

  • Need to do your own finances (bookkeeping, quotes, invoices, debt collection, etc), or pay someone to do it for you.

  • Have to be proactive in finding work yourself, do your own marketing, networking, client acquisition, etc.

  • No paid leave or sick leave

  • Can be isolating working by yourself, but networking can help with this!

An in-house translator will be given work by their employer, but a freelance translator will need to search for work themselves. There are many ways that you could go about this.

How to find work as a freelance translator:

Here are some of the many ways that you can find work as a freelance translator.

  • Create a profile on translator directories such as:

  • Create a profile on the online directory of any professional associations or accreditation authorities that you belong to.

    • NAATI (National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters)

    • AUSIT (Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators Inc)

    • ATA (American Translators Association)

    • JAT (Japan Association of Translators)

  • Create your own website.

  • Sign up with translation agencies.

  • Enter translation competitions.

    • The JLPP is an annual literary translation competition held every June. The competition is usually from Japanese to English, and sometimes also from Japanese to another language, such as French

    • The annual JAT Translation Contest is held for aspiring translations in both Japanese to English and English to Japanese.

    • Japan Creative Agency acquires rights to Japanese books and often holds translation contests to find the right translator for a particular book.

    • Here is a list (in Japanese) of other translation contests held in 2023.

  • Use social media.

    • LinkedIn This is a good place to network with other translators as well as translation agencies and companies that you may want to work with directly. I've actually received most of my job opportunities through LinkedIn.

    • Find out what social media platforms are most commonly used by your target audience. If you want to connect with Japanese clients, you should use the apps that are most popular there.

    • The apps most popular in Japan currently are:

      1. LINE

      2. Twitter

      3. Instagram

      4. Facebook

  • Network. Especially with other translators! A lot of job opportunities actually come from other translators who cannot accept a task themselves for whatever reason (e.g., They work with different languages, the text is not a subject that they specialise in, they're already overbooked and can't take on an extra project...)

    • Use LinkedIn, follow industry hashtags, interact with posts, start up conversations with other translators, and send personalised messages along with your connection requests.

    • Join groups such as JE Translator Hub and 在宅翻訳コミュニティ on Facebook

    • If you're an Australian or based in Australia, you could also join the Australian Translators and Interpreters Space on Facebook

    • Go to PD (professional development) and networking events

      • Events held by professional associations such as JAT or AUSIT

      • Networking events for other industries that are related to your specialisations. (eg. Go to publishing events if you want to specialise in literary translation.)

  • Watch videos by Freelanceverse for more tips on finding work:

  • Create a Google Business Profile

  • Other marketing activities, such as creating fliers and advertising online


Japanese study, JLPT textbooks, JLPT N1, Translation books, How to become a Japanese translator, professional Japanese to English translation, EZo Translation

Extra resources

While studying to be a translator, I accessed a lot of great sources of information to get the advice that I needed for a successful start to my career in translation.


Here are some resources that I recommend:


Have questions or know of any other resources that I missed?

Please share them in the comments!

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