My First Translation Assignment

I want to announce that I am very happy for a young colleague who recently received his first freelance translation assignment. Congratulations!

This news got me thinking about how different it must be now to enter this profession. I got started about 13 years ago, in December of 2007. I was in my fifth year of living in Japan and teaching English as a second language. I had enjoyed my time in the classroom, but I was looking for something better, and I found it in translation. It didn’t take long for me to double and then triple my income, all from the comfort of my home while doing something I enjoy.

However, I’m sure the market dynamics have changed in the time since. Thanks to the popularity of cultural exports like anime, manga, J-pop, and of course video games, more people from the English-speaking world are learning Japanese. I am doubtful, though, that there are many who are actually gaining enough fluency to be translators to significantly shift the balance of supply-and-demand in my market. And on the demand side, even if globalization has stalled somewhat because the coronavirus pandemic has largely prevented us from crossing borders to interact in-person with those who speak a different tongue, at least online our world continues to be more and more interconnected. And that cross-border communication and interaction is exactly what drives demand for translation. Therefore, it seems to me that freelance translation is still a good opportunity for newcomers to the field, just like it was for me in 2007.

Another thing I’ve been recollecting lately is my first translation assignment. My career in this profession, although I would consider it fairly successful overall, got off to a very inauspicious start.

At the time, I was feeling quite confident after taking the second-highest level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). It was December. I hadn’t received my score yet, but I was certain I had passed and that I had done especially well on reading comprehension, probably the most essential skill for my upcoming foray into Japanese-to-English translation.

I was in for a rude surprise. When I received my first job from the London office of a translation agency headquartered in China, the files I received were nothing like what I had been reading in my studies for the JLPT or in the manga I consumed for pleasure.

The text was littered with business terms that are perfectly common in ordinary Japanese but do not come up often when you study the language, and certainly not much in the manga I was reading (20th Century Boys, Afro Tanaka, etc.). There were also English words thrown into the middle of Japanese sentences, which instead of helping, actually confused me more!

In addition to a laptop with Windows XP, the tools at my disposal included a basic paper dictionary and just one piece of dictionary software — on my Nintendo DS!

漢字そのまま DS楽引辞典.jpg
Caption: 漢字そのまま DS楽引辞典 was great for learning, but certainly not the most powerful translation tool around.

Even if I had tried to access any online dictionaries or other dictionary software, it would have been pointless because the Japanese emails I was translating had been printed out (perhaps faxed?) and then scanned as PDF files, so no copying-and-pasting without OCR conversion software (a solution that didn’t even spring to mind at the time).

I was clearly ill-prepared; not only due to my lack of proper hardware and software, or any sort of training in how to be a translator, but also my unexpectedly inadequate reading comprehension. There was just too much to look up!

So, I enlisted my wife, who is Japanese but quite fluent in English, to use my DS to look up words I probably didn’t know and list up their English equivalents as I tried to form coherent sentences.

Progress was painfully slow. My sentences felt awkward, like they had not been written by a native English speaker, but I had no idea how to deduce what was unsaid in the Japanese to revise my work without possibly making it even more incorrect. The job was, in a word, a disaster.

But it could have been worse, in a sense, because I gave up after only handling two of the seven assigned files. I fibbed to the project manager that I had had some weekend overtime thrown at me by my boss at my regular job, so I wouldn’t be able to finish the rest of the translation. I felt guilty for this lie, but it would have felt like even more of a disservice to her (and an agonizing experience for me) to continue with my very substandard work.

Amazingly, the PM was cool with it and said she’d give the rest of the files to somebody else. I was so relieved! Even better, I actually got paid for what I had turned in. It was a dirt-cheap rate, but at the time I was just stunned it was more than zero.

First, of course, I had to submit an invoice. That was unexpected, as I had never freelanced before. I asked myself, “How the hell do I make an invoice?”

I searched online for what an invoice requires, then made one in Word. It was a huge hassle. A few assignments later, I realized Excel is much better for such tasks. (Duh!)

I also had to get paid. My only way to receive the money was PayPal or an international wire transfer to my bank account in Japan. There were better options at the time, and many more now!

That first experience made me think I might not be cut out for translation. I remember talking with a fellow English teacher about the subject. His Japanese was also fairly good. He told me about his one-and-only freelance translation assignment. It was for a menu. He said it was one of the biggest pains in the ass he had ever experienced and he would never translate again.

However, it’s important to remember that pretty much any time we start out a new job, we suck. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to not suck anymore.

(Besides, translating menus like the one my friend did is actually really hard if you don’t have any visuals for reference and if there’s a bunch of katakana loanwords from, say, French.)

In fact, when I look at that source document from my first translation assignment today, it looks so easy. I could fly through it now, probably with little to no need to consult a dictionary.

My point: Don’t give up too soon. If you’ve had some bad first experiences in translation, you might look back months from now and think of them as valuable learning opportunities.

However, it’s also good to know when to throw in the towel, like I did with interpreting.

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