Starting Out as a Freelance Translator - For Native English Speakers Working from Japanese to English

With this article, I would like to share my thoughts on how to embark upon the path of becoming a freelance translator. Please note that the advice given here is tailored to native English speakers translating from Japanese to English. If this does not describe you, then some of the information here may not apply to your situation.

Okay, let’s get to it. A typical path to freelance J>E translation begins working in-house as a part-time or often full-time employee of some company, or perhaps a government agency or non-profit organization. The job may involve other duties alongside translation. In addition to a college degree, many such positions will require a JLPT qualification, perhaps N2 or N1. After building up experience and skills under the supervision of someone more experienced than yourself, you may finally come to the realization that freelancing will probably net you a much higher income.

Now feeling that your employer has been exploiting your talent for undeserved corporate profits all this time (which may or may not be true), you decide to strike out on your own as a liberated freelancer, allowing you to work in your pajamas from the comfort of your futon or kotatsu, accepting and declining whichever assignments you choose. You are certain that the greater independence, work-life balance and higher earnings will translate into a better lifestyle (pun intended).

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Caption: At an in-house position, your boss would never let you work at a desk like this.

Okay, that last paragraph is obviously the optimist’s take on making the leap to freelancing. As I explained in my previous article, that freedom is accompanied by responsibility. If you are considering a career as a freelance translator, the first thing you need to do before exploring how to make it happen is whether or not the work is suited to you.

So, assuming that you now know what the work of freelance J>E translation involves, what your responsibilities will be and what your customers will expect of you, and you’re totally cool with all that, let’s talk about where to find the work.

When I started out, I actually wasn’t translating in-house. I was in my fifth year as an English teacher here in Japan. My position at the time involved a lot of office hours where I actually had nothing to do, so I started translating on the side. In about six months, I had enough translation income to feel comfortable quitting my teaching gig.

Where did I get the work? First, I posted a profile on at least a dozen different translator job sites. The one that has produced the best results is by far 翻訳者ディレクトリ. Its design is incredibly ugly, but don’t let that turn you away. Let me explain why.

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Caption: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Living in Japan, I prefer to work with agencies based inside the country because they tend to pay better, receiving payments is hassle-free, and these customers understand the translation issues particular to the Japanese language. It turns out that those agencies often use 翻訳者ディレクトリ to find translators. Not only that, but the most awesome thing about this site for folks like me is that there are few native English speakers registered there, so it’s a place where I can really stand out. This has been true for the past 10 years, even though I keep spreading the word about the site through my colleagues.

In addition to using 翻訳者ディレクトリ, in my first year as a freelancer I searched directories of translation agencies at websites such as, contacting those companies that handle projects in the fields I wanted to work in.

This then leads to an important question: What are your areas of expertise? From what I’ve seen, many translators come from liberal arts backgrounds. So do I. I have a B.A. in History and an M.A. in International Relations. As you may have surmised from my academic history, my intent was not to become a translator, but I’ve found that many of our long-term plans in life don’t turn out the way we expect, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many of us end up in positions we never anticipated taking on.

Likewise, many freelance translators who hail from liberal arts backgrounds may experience a certain degree of consternation when asked to fill in the box on the registration form listing their specialties. History? International relations? Probably not a lot of J>E translation work in those areas, at least not with any prior experience. (I can attest that this is in fact true.)

I felt that if I was going to turn this into a full-time job to support my wife and kid, I had to tell potential customers that I can work in fields offering better financial rewards. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t want to try and translate patents, clinical trial reports or legal contracts. There’s so much demand for such work that it’s possible to receive it (from dodgy agencies) even if you have little to no prior experience, but I was clearly not qualified for that and I didn’t want to cause trouble and embarrassment for myself or my customers.

In my case, I decided to just list all the categories I was at least interested in, if not quite an expert. I figured my enthusiasm would at minimum keep me motivated. Some of those areas I selected included manga, anime and video games.

It turns out this was the right way to go. If you advertise yourself as a translator of subjects you’re interested in, you’re likely to get offers related to them, as well as other jobs that may be completely unrelated, but which you might find yourself capable of handling. You’ll probably need the latter to fill out your schedule, so you might as well give them a shot. In my case, most of my early work was a mix of video game localization, along with marketing and PR. Today, the latter accounts for most of my work and overall I enjoy it.

Okay, now you’ve got your information out there on the internet, including the fields you work in, and you’re fielding inquiries. But one question from potential customers is tough to answer:

“What’s your rate?”

If you’ve just started out, you may be thinking:

“Hell if I know! How much will you give me?”

The question of rates is a topic that deserves special attention and it will be the focus of my next article.

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