What to practice to become a Japanese to English translator

I met some young people today who were either just starting their careers or studying to do so. They asked me about translation from Japanese into English and I want to just write up what I said to them for future reference.

It’s obvious you need to practice your understanding of Japanese. I didn’t really talk too much about this, but the best way by far would be to read read and read as much Japanese as you can.

As much as possible avoid texts that are too difficult for you. You want the level to be at or only slightly above your current level. This is to avoid burnout. It takes a long time to go through difficult texts like this, and it can be extremely tedious. It also doesn’t benefit you that much. It’s much better to work up to that level slowly, even if it takes a lot of time.

Only then should you go on to texts in your speciality, to learn the specific words. But even then there is only so much benefit to be gained. Especially in Japanese where there are so many loan words, you may not need to learn too many content-specific words.

You don’t really need to practice your production of Japanese much, unless you want to become an interpreter (spoken language as opposed to a translator who works with written text). For translation, rather than practicing your production of Japanese, make sure your English writing is up to scratch so you can better get nuance across. This daily blog is one way in which I practice this.

I’ve seen people become successful translators even with a poor production ability in Japanese. Better (and easier) to be better at English, that’s what you are getting paid for anyway.

When you feel ready, practice translating things within your realm of ability as much as possible. Since you’re still in training, treat every opportunity seriously, even if you are volunteering. You should be doing this anyway, any job is a privilege.

You can practice translating things that have already been translated then compare them to the professional version, or you can just try translating things you are interested in.

Take a creative license, but make sure the nuance gets through. Haruki Murakami’s translator said that translation is like a cover song, you are singing the same notes and using the same instruments, but the musicians’ personal touch always comes through. Especially with Japanese, often it’s impossible to do a like for like translation.

At a minimum I go through a text translating three times. First I read through and put it into rudimentary English, focusing on the gist and leaving specific words and words I don’t know for later. I always put a Star next to these words to remind myself. I don’t use a dictionary at this stage unless a word really bugs me. Before I had to, but now I don’t usually need to. This comes from experience.

Second go through and fill in the more difficult parts. Check the dictionary, and use google image search or things like blogs for the words you don’t understand. Look at them in different sentences too, this always helps. Usually google translate is fine for individual words, trust your native ability. Take a break for at least an hour here. This break serves an important role of letting your subconscious remember certain phrases that will help you.

Third, go through and check that your meaning matches the Japanese. If some parts are particularly bad, make a mental note to go through them again.

If you have time, go through the text again. That’s about all for now, I’ll go through and edit this for clarity soon 😉



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