Becoming A Japanese Translator: The J-J Learner

Making the switch to J-J (monolingual learning) is a major turning point in your studies. Once you get over the initial hurdles, your level reaches new heights at new speeds. You’ve left behind English and can now focus solely on Japanese without it ever getting in the way again.

Becoming A Japanese Translator - The J-J Learner

Until you decide to become a translator… And two major concerns begin to uncomfortably bubble up inside you.

1. Do you have a handicap compared to a J-E learner who becomes a translator?

You’ve been developing the Japanese language portion of your brain with English no longer a part of that equation. You listen in Japanese. You understand in Japanese. You think in Japanese. Now you need English. You need to create new connections between Japanese and English, which you stopped doing a long time ago.

You start to think you should’ve kept English in your studies at least a little.  The J-E learner who has kept the Japanese and English connection constant probably has a big advantage over you as he has been “translating” all along…

Don’t worry. You are completely fine.

The J-E learner’s advantage is small. They know how a lot of Japanese vocabulary translates to English that you never thought about. Let’s call this the J-E translator’s vocabulary boost.

Becoming A Japanese Translator - The J-J Learner 2

But besides that, the advantages aren’t as strong as you think. Just like the J-J learner, casual translation is completely different than being a translator. The major difference between the J-E learner and J-J learner is the type of dictionary they use. The J-E learner looks up words (and possibly short phrases) in English. But being a translator involves a completely new skill set, and it isn’t just about knowing what the equivalent of Japanese words are in English. There is so much more involved.

The J-E learner lacks the same “translator practice” as a J-J learner. Finding the right words, for the right sentences, and learning how to take multiple lines and organize them into a proper English sentence all are new techniques that a translator must develop. The J-E learner may have saved a little time in vocabulary he has looked up before, but it has its limits.

You might also think the J-E learner would know how to think of Japanese in English better. But even with extensive J-E dictionary usage, the J-E learner is still developing the Japanese side of his brain. Even with English, he still will learn how to think in Japanese. While slightly different than the J-J learner thought process, the J-E learner will eventually start naturally going to the Japanese meaning.

Whatever minor advantage the J-E learner has is completely trumped by the fact that a J-J learner has the power to reach levels significantly quicker than a J-E learner, and really learns to understand on a deeper level the way the language works. He is used to looking at J-J definitions all the time, knows the way words and phrases interact with each other, and goes in with a much higher base Japanese for translation than the J-E learner.

Even the J-E learner vocabulary boost is limited. For example, J-J learners will easily be able to translate the vocabulary for physical objects or concrete ideas, despite having never seen them English. A cat is a cat. A snake is a snake. And a cat eating a snake is a cat eating a snake. It’s the more complex ideas and concepts that the J-J learner will struggle with a little in the beginning, but it’s easy to catch up.

Don’t forget about other J-J translator advantages, such as when there is no English definition, or when there are multiple English definitions with slight variation, or when the English definition isn’t really capturing the right meaning. I often use a J-J dictionary in addition to a J-E dictionary when translating.

2. Does becoming a translator and now using a J-E dictionary damage your Japanese ability?

Becoming A Japanese Translator - The J-J Learner 3

You are going back to J-E. Something that you worked hard to rid yourself of. Removing English was the best thing you could have done, and you’ve been solely dedicated to J-J. Will reverting back to J-E slowly unravel your J-J ability and your deeper understanding of the language. Will it taint your Japanese power?


While being a translator doesn’t involve the same low level encounter of accidentally seeing an English word in your Japanese studies, the concept remains the same. I said there that a little English isn’t going to damage the colossal amount of hours of pure Japanese.

When your base level of Japanese is high enough to become a translator, you will have clocked in thousands of J-only hours. Even while you are working as a translator, in your non-translator daily life you will continue to clock in thousands more, for the rest of your life. J-E time will never counteract that once it becomes so permanently a part of your brain.

Remember, I said that you have 3 separate skills: English, Japanese, and J-E translation.

You are developing your translation ability. Your 3rd skill. You use this skill when you are translating. But when you go watch TV, or read a book, or play a video game, you are not using your translator skill. You are using your Japanese skill. Your brain isn’t going to waste time using your new skill when it has a skill that works much better and much more efficiently.

Having done professional translation for 5 years, nothing has changed with my Japanese thought process. I still think in Japanese. When I engage in anything Japanese, all I feel is Japanese. I don’t all of a sudden start thinking in English. I don’t watch a variety show and now all the Japanese captions appear to me in English.

If you are still doubting me, think about it like this. Using your translator skill is tiring. It’s hard work, because it involves connecting two other skills and opening the route between them. Do you think when I’m lazily sitting on my sofa watching Dragon Ball Super and engaging in extreme nostalgia, I want to work and get tired? Do you think my brain is going to go into translator mode when it can easily just go into Japanese skill mode and allow me to just smile with pure joy.

Becoming A Japanese Translator - The J-J Learner 5

Worry Free

I’m hoping this post can relieve any worries that potential J-J learner translators have. I won’t lie. I had the same worries. And at the time I had nothing to really go off of. I was internally taking a risk, because I wanted to do translation. So all I could do was hope for the best. And it all worked out perfectly.

If you have successfully kicked ass with J-J, you will continue to do so, with nothing bad coming on the way with being a translator.

Part 12 ● 3 ● 4  5 6 ● 7 ● 8 ● 9 ● 1011

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Becoming A Japanese Translator: The J-J Learner — 7 Comments

  1. Translators use dictionaries anyway, so going J-J would not put you on a handicap. I think it would even be an advantage because you can now supplement your knowledge of the “real” definition of the word to the translation in the J-E dictionary to come up with the best translation.

    • Of course, dictionaries will be standard for both groups. Sometimes your real definition of the word “conflicts” with the English definition, but most of the time using both creates a nice harmony as you said.

  2. Speaking as a Dutch English bilingual (native speaker of both from 3 years old), who’s spent rather a lot of time translating for her work. Even though I’m actually a programmer… All of this is based on my experience translating manuals, marketing brochures, customer mailings and that kind of stuff.

    Going the J-J route actually gives you an advantage. Often times the J-E dictionary will give you the best translation for the word by itself. But when you look at the word in a sentence you need to convey the meaning of that sentence. And to do so I often find myself searching the E-E dictionary to find the synonym that works best in the given context.

    There’s been a lot of fuss recently about literal translations, due to the whole Fire Emblem localisation thing, and there’s no such thing. A literal translation is unreadable. A good translation, to me anyway, is one that’s a pleasant read. And that means getting across the meaning of the original. I’ve added sentences to paragraphs, split one into two, flipped the entire order of a sentence and restructured the texts I’ve translated in pretty much every way necessary to achieve a text that is pleasant and engaging to read. I find this to be especially important when you’re given marketing material to translate. The more literal you make the translation, the less natural it’ll sound and the impression your potential customer will get be less favourable.

    My ultimate tip for anyone who wants to go into translating (and this is based on my very limited experience) is to read and listen to a lot of material in BOTH languages you plan on working with. Because there are common turns of phrase, not to mention things like sayings, that you will never be able to translate if you don’t simply know the equivalent.

    • Yes, and it takes some time to go from those literal translations that start to appear in your head as a beginner, and then go to the natural (final/real) translation.

      You bring up a great point about E-E as well, which surprisingly plays a big role in Japanese translation.

      • Yes, as I’m a programmer the only reason I ended up doing translations was because I complained about the shit level of the ones they’d been using so far. And then I got a reputation as the go to girl for any questions on English. And I learned really rapidly that 1) you need to learn a lot of jargon in both of the languages you’ll be working with to function effectively 2) you need to the E-E dictionary a lot more than the Dutch-English one when translating from Dutch to English.

        Recently I’ve been working on a new skill as I now have some colleagues who only speak and English and my boss occasionally refuses to give speeches in English. So I’ve been doing on the fly translations for those and I’m getting better at them. At first I could only manage a summary at the end, now I’m doing sentences as they’re spoken. While there are some similarities to written translations, interpretation is mainly a case of translating quickly and you just aim for getting the meaning across. With writing I spend more time crafting the sentences.

        I’ve also reviewed work from other translators and gotten into a row with one via e-mail, because I’d changed a word somewhere. Can’t remember exactly what it was, but they’d literally translated it and I changed it to a synonym which sounded more natural to me. They sole defence was “but that’s a correct translation according to the dictionary”….

  3. Besides translating being tiring, I feel that the ultimate proof that one language won’t get in the way of another is numbers. When you see ‘5’ in an English text you immediately think of ‘five’ while in a Japanese text you think of ‘ご’. Despite all the years you grew up knowing it as ‘five’ you can learn to see it as ‘ご’ just by a change of context. The two languages really are two different parts of your mind that change how you see something.

    • Interesting and very true! I had never thought about it that way with a shared symbol being interpreted depending on which language you were using.

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