Qualifying as a Translator

by Lynne E. Riggs

"The world in 1991 badly needs trained, experienced Japanese-to-English translators—not just people who know both English and Japanese and have fancy computer setups, but people educated for the job of translating messages in one language to those in another."

In the 20 years that have passed since I wrote this, many hardworking, experienced translators have emerged. Numerous young Japanese raised overseas with bilingual capabilities—native speakers in two (or more) languages—have now entered the translation as well as interpreting professions. And may more generations of unilingual students have enthusiastically studied Japanese and think they can be translators. Now we all have fancy computer setups, email, instant research capabilities via the Internet, excellent word processing software, and a host of other advantages. But aspiring translators are still asking where to start and what to do to enter the translation profession.

People setting out on careers in medicine, law, or university teaching plan carefully to gain the qualifications they need for these professions. While translators’ work may not save lives or determine the course of history, a skillful translation could prevent a serious misunderstanding from erupting into war or corporate conflict, forestall the breakup of an international marriage, or bring the unique insights of scholars whose works have been trapped in Japanese to an international audience.

So translators have no right to be nonchalant about their skills. But how many of us go about acquiring them in an organized way? Few of the professionals involved in Japanese-to-English translation today decided upon graduating from college to pursue careers as translators and drew up lists of needed skills, qualifications to acquire, or subjects to master. And yet, in retrospect, experienced translators might list things like the following:

  • Love of reading and writing since youth.
  • Several years’ residence in Japan, living alone or with Japanese in some arrangement.
  • Degree in Japanese studies (university- or graduate-level courses in Japanese history, literature, art, music, sociology, Japanese and Chinese philosophy, history of Asia).
  • Regular practice of at least one traditional discipline: tea ceremony, brush calligraphy, a martial art, a musical instrument.
  • University or continuing-education courses in expository writing, journalistic writing, or research-report writing.
  • Familiarity with computers and widely used high-tech equipment.
  • Internship or employment with a translation company or publisher in Japan.

These items are applicable to a professional non-technical translator, who can handle anything from an academic paper about the emperor system in ancient Japan to an editorial about the war in Afghanistan, a president’s message for an annual report, or the captions for an art exhibition catalog. (The list for a technical translator would look a bit different.)

Why are Japanese language courses not on this list? Because any Japanese you might learn in school will probably be acquired before you decide to become a translator, and for the Japanese you learn after that, you don’t always need a school. The concerns of a translator of Japanese into English are a far cry from those of a linguist (and most teachers of Japanese are linguists). After the grammar-oriented curriculums of beginner courses, a translator has to move on quickly to cultivating an intuitive grasp of grammar, to reading, and acquiring background skills. Often as not, a translator can best learn Japanese by living in Japan and translating. In the 1970s, when many of the senior translators working today were starting out, language classes were not (with the exception of a few intensive university programs) worth the time a highly motivated student spent warming the classroom chair. But in the 20 years since then, Japanese language teaching and textbooks have improved immeasurably. There are a variety of programs available both overseas and in Japan that teach students how to dissect and analyze text when it is dense and hard to understand. A good balance of formal and informal study is clearly the way to go.

The question of learning Japanese deserves an essay in itself. But it is a basic requirement that should go without saying for the non-Japanese translator: you have to learn Japanese. Not just basic knowledge so you can parse sentences, and not just vocabulary, but the idiom, the sense, the meaning. This can take years—a lifetime. And this challenge is one not only limited to non-native speakers; native Japanese speakers who want to translate into English need to gain an objectivity and heightened awareness of their own language. It can only be done by using (and hearing and reading) the language. If you do not understand or are unwilling to understand, you cannot call yourself a translator. If you think Japanese writers are sloppy, ambiguous, disorganized, and illogical, and you are not patient enough to find the message behind their words, you may be in the wrong profession.

Given basic language skills, then, what about the other items on the above list?

Living in Japan

It should be obvious that anyone desiring to translate Japanese into another language needs to have lived in Japan. This is especially important for Westerners, whose stubbornly logical thinking, Eurocentrism, and unfamiliarity with an ideograph-centered linguistic culture can be major handicaps. The only way to acquire the perspective needed to recognize these handicaps is willing immersion in the culture you are seeking to understand. The things that shape Japanese thinking—social relationships, the beauties of the landscape, the seeming hodge-podge of the old urban landscape—must be experienced to be real and interpretable.

Graduate study

Why is it desirable to obtain an M.A. or equivalent in Japanese studies? Because it is quite likely that as an undergraduate you were busy acquiring general knowledge of your own culture and some specific field of interest—all of which is very important to a translator as well. Translators should be translating into their own language (or a language in which they have native-speaker ability), so they have to be literate, cultured, and well-informed English speakers. They need to know a lot about Japan or whatever culture they are translating from—history, art, cultural traditions, religious and philosophical background, aesthetics, society, food, landscape, environment, etc. The best courses about Japan are offered in graduate school, where you may also find more freedom to create the kind of interdisciplinary study that serves a general translator best. You can educate yourself about Japan too, but a graduate degree will do you no harm.

Traditional arts

When I began taking classes in the tea ceremony years ago, I was merely intrigued by the opportunities it provided to enjoy an aesthetic sensibility of immense subtlety and delicacy. I never thought that it would help me become a better translator, but it proved an unparalleled chance to learn things that are difficult to pick up by rote: the impact of the iemoto system on individuals and groups, the contexts and usages of honorific language, the feel of traditional architecture and the accouterments of an extremely refined culture, the meaning of difficult-to-grasp aesthetic concepts and social values, and traditional etiquette. I was a disappointing student of kendō, but I did learn the meaning of ki-ai, ganbaru, sempai-kōhai relations, and a whole raft of sensations I could never have picked up in a modern sport. These are just examples, but where a dictionary may fail the translator, experience can come to the rescue. These highly hierarchical groups can be hard for a Westerner to adapt to, but they are very accessible microcosms of Japanese culture.

Writing skills

A translator rendering Japanese into English has to be able to craft sentences with skill and precision. How successful the translation is depends both on mastery of the meaning of the Japanese and on agility with the conventions of English writing. Those who continually turn to books for pleasure might acquire solid writing skills naturally. Many avid readers are also excellent writers. For many of us the guidance and training provided by expository writing courses with a good teacher can be of immeasurable value. Having had a teacher or an editor point out use of ambiguous or redundant words, wrong word choice, clichés, and other common problems will help you be a better editor of your own writing. The ability to look critically at the writing that is your translation, see its faults, correct its weaknesses, control its tone, and enhance its quality is as crucial to your profession as a surgeon’s knowledge of human anatomy and surgical skills.

Familiarity with computers, the Internet, and word processing

Today, in 2011, the computer keyboard and many other devices are familiar extensions of our hands. Keyboard and Internet-search skills are now as basic as the three Rs. Mastery of the various software tools facilitates translation because of the need to rearrange words, sentences, and paragraphs. The old scribble-and-recopy method kept good translation on the ground for a long time; with word processors, it is on a whole new plane.

Computers have freed us from the drudgery of revising drafts and made the collateral tasks far more efficient: communication with clients, organization of glossaries and other data, and refinement of the end-product (spilling over into the profession of design). Standard cross-platform compatible software makes it possible to work with clients, authors, and collaborators with ease, indispensable in the fast-moving world of professional translation today.

Familiarity with obtaining reliable information via Internet search has also become a prerequisite skill for translators. Where once translators might be given reference materials, time to go to the library, and glossaries of terms, today, in the much-accelerated press of time, such supports are often lacking. Fortunately, as the pace of twenty-first-century work expectations has picked up, the Internet has grown and search engines have put research at our fingertips. If a translator is lucky, a client may offer visual materials and reference via URLs created for the purpose, and numerous reliable online encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries, and specialized websites are now available. Naturally, being savvy about what is reliable and what is not is crucial.

Translators should be careful about assuming they can rely for everything on the Internet, however. There is still no substitute for strong background knowledge of the field you are working in, gained through extensive reading and research.


Last, but certainly not least, working under other experienced translators is an absolute must. It hardly needs saying that having your work revised and corrected by colleagues and seeing how others do the job enhances your skills. It also helps you to cultivate the humility and flexibility to keep on honing your own abilities. If you work alone and rarely receive corrections or feedback, you may build a castle out of sand. (Of course, the people you work with have to be people whose work you can respect.)

How long does all this take? Of course it depends, but if you don’t get sidetracked (and there are plenty of things to distract a translator), it might take five or six years. If the work is not just a way to earn a living—if it turns out to be your vocation—your career will begin to really mature after the tenth year. It helps if you have specialized in a subject that really fascinates you.

Among SWET’s veteran translators, as I mentioned, few deliberately planned for their careers. For the future, however, many experienced translators hope that their occupation will be recognized as the profession it is and that younger people entering the field will build solid qualifications before assuming its responsibilities.

(Revised for the SWET website September 8, 2011; originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 45, March 1991)

© 1991/2011 Lynne E. Riggs