The Japanese-to-English translation industry in Japan

The Japanese-to-English (J-E) translation industry in Japan is in kind of an odd situation: I would estimate that at least 90% of the J-E translators in Japan are native speakers of Japanese (NSJs). This is odd because in most of the rest of the industrialized world — Europe and North America in particular — it's considered axiomatic that translators should translate into their native languages.

It's actually pretty common for translators to work out of their native languages (instead of into them) in the case of minor languages that few outsiders learn.

But Japan has the second-largest economy in the world, and trades throughout the globe. Much of its economy is driven by exports. So Japanese certainly isn't "minor" in that respect. It is minor, however, in the respect that very few foreigners learn it (relatively speaking), and of those, even fewer learn how to read it — obviously a vital skill for a translator!

So, for various reasons, there are many more Japanese who learn English than NSEs who learn Japanese. Of course, being able to read a foreign language very well is just the first requirement to being a translator, but if 100 times more Japanese learn English than the other way around, you're going to crank out far more NSJ translators than NSE ones.

There is also a bit of a reluctance among some Japanese to believe that foreigners could ever master their language well enough to translate it. This kind of attitude is fading, but you can still see it when you tell someone you're a translator and they ask you whether you can really read Japanese. And although the attitude is fading, it's a fact that a lot of Japanese clients prefer NSJs to do their English translations, and not just because they're generally a lot cheaper.

This massively larger number of NSJ translators conspires to increase the number of NSJ J-E translators in two ways. (1) Since there aren't enough NSE translators to handle Japan's massive commercial translation demand, the NSJs naturally have to step in. (2) Since the number of NSJs is so much larger, the rates for English-to-Japanese (E-J) translation tend to be much lower than for J-E translation (that's not the only reason, of course — there is also the contrast of author-driven versus reader-driven demand). Add to this the fact that it's slower to type Japanese than English because you have to go through a front-end-processor (i.e. IME), and it's simply more profitable to translate J-E, even for NSJs.

The typical J-E translation process in Japan is to have a NSJ do the translation, then have some hapless NSE do what is euphemistically called a "native check" — and could be more accurately referred to as "polishing a turd." Because while it's true that there are some NSJs who can produce fine English translations, perhaps needing just a bit of tweaking or rewriting, from 10 years in this business I can tell you that they are few and far between.

The real problem with this process is that even the most thorough "native check" usually can't turn the translation into good English. Just like no amount of editing will save bad writing, no amount of "native checking" is going to rescue a lousy translation. A full rewrite/re-translation is usually required in both cases. Check the English website of just about any large Japanese corporation to see proof of this.

It's been my experience that the market actually reflects this quality gap — NSEs generally command higher rates for J-E translation than NSJs, and often more than the rate of the NSJ and that of the "native checker" combined. Again, some NSJs do superb J-E work, and command high rates, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that they are a small, small portion of the total population of NSJ translators.

So to the budding NSJ J-E translator I would say (1) good luck, and if you are serious about this career, (2) read English like crazy, and (3) get thee to an English-speaking country and live there at least 5 years. Your written English will still be far from native level, but you'll have a leg up on most of your compatriots. (Of course, in an English-speaking country, there'll probably be more E-J work and at better rates, the market still not being completely globalized.)

To the budding NSE J-E translator working for Japanese clients, I would say (1) learn to read and speak Japanese very well, because you will have to disprove some misconceptions, and (2) polish your skills so you can differentiate yourself from the pack, because there is a very strong polarization of rates — and you want to be in the top pole, right?

2 comments to The Japanese-to-English translation industry in Japan

  • When sourcing for a credible translation provider, the client should ensure that the company covers a wide area of expertise and has years of experience. The client can evaluate those by requesting for references or testimonials from past clients.

  • I work with a lot of japenese products like the one in my website field. Translation has always been the biggest problem when it came to japanese whole sellers.

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