Becoming A Japanese Translator: The Ranks

You’d assume that once you enter the world of translation and professional translators, everyone would be on similar grounds. You are fluent in Japanese. They are fluent in Japanese. While “translator skill level” will vary based on experience, you are all now Japanese translators.

Becoming A Japanese Translator - Ranks

All kinds of people of different Japanese levels become translators.

I’ve worked with a lot of other translators over the years. I’ve done QC (quality control) of others’ work. I’ve collaborated, discussed, disagreed, and many of my good friends are translators.

While this isn’t quite a “level guide,” I believe there are 7 general translator ranks. I say general because specialty in certain fields will affect translator ability significantly. An amazing financial translator may not be that good at translating fantasy manga. A talented romance novel translator may not be good at translating technical manuals. But overall, you will run into 7 types of translators.

Rank 0: Faker

Japanese Level: 0-5

Some fields of Japanese translation pay well, and are desperately in need of translators, so they do a very bad job of hiring. There are unfortunately unscrupulous people that take advantage of this. They are aware they don’t have the ability, but know they can slide by on the job with a good show, and rely mostly on Google Translate. Sometimes their native language is similar enough to give them an advantage in faking it.

This isn’t a topic I like talking about, as dealing with this is quite unpleasant, but it’s something you should be aware of. This rank is really a non-rank though, as they are not actually Japanese translators.

Rank 1: Underestimating Extreme

Japanese Level: 20-30

Rank 1 knows his Japanese is very weak. However, he thinks that it’s okay. He doesn’t come close to having the Japanese level to be a translator. He is either deluding himself or assuming translation is simple because he’s done a little “casual translation.”

Rank 2: Early Starter

Japanese Level: 40-50

These are people that have the potential to translate, but haven’t quite done enough with their Japanese to do well. They still need more work and time on getting enough exposure to the language before they actually start their translation skill.

Rank 2 can sometimes get by and learn as they go, but their translations are often filled with a lot of mistakes, and need a lot of polishing.

Becoming A Japanese Translator - Ranks 2

Rank 3: Beginner

Japanese Level: 55+

Rank 3 has reached an adequate level of Japanese. However, he is just starting out translating for the first time. Everyone has to start somewhere, and since translating is a skill, regardless of his level he will still have trouble in the beginning.

His translations will be a little awkward, due to lack of experience, but as he puts in the work over the next several months his translator skill will quickly rise.

Rank 4: Good

Japanese Level: Fluent +

Rank 4’s Japanese is fluent and he has a lot of translation practice under his belt. He’s probably been refining his translation skills for a few years, and knows how things work. He still has plenty of areas he wants to improve on, but he is a full fledged translator now.

Rank 5: Great

Japanese Level: Fluent +

Rank 5 has very smooth and natural translations. His writing flows perfectly in both Japanese and English. Translation starts to require much less effort, as it just comes out. This usually takes several years.

Becoming A Japanese Translator - Ranks 3

Rank 6: Expert

Japanese Level: Fluent +

These are the top translators. They usually get requested specifically and hired based on reputation. Think of big name novel translators, who are actually famous as translators. Rank 6 is at the top of the game.

Work up the ranks

Just like learning Japanese itself, it’s a slow process to work your way up to however high you want to go. You should start at Rank 3 (Rank 2 can be dangerous, and Rank 1 will just guarantee you trouble).

A reminder: a lot of people get confused that the Japanese level to reach Rank 3 means that they just need to acquire ~5000 sentences (through Jalup expert) to achieve this. Having only done 5000 sentences will not be enough to prepare you, as this can be accomplished in a year. Level 50 also means you need to understand Japanese TV (80%), Manga (85%), Novels (70%), Japanese News (65%), which is only accomplished through spending a lot of time on immersion using native materials.

But if you get your Japanese up to par, you can and will become a translator if you so desire.  It can feel a little daunting in the beginning, but people that become translators, and really enjoy what they are doing, ascend the ranks quickly and often find a job that they love.

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 Ranks — 16 Comments

  1. So have you done an ATA exam or similar? Are you a member of an institute such as international federation of translators? Where would you rank yourself of the level guide in this post?

    • Nope, I have no official certificates. I’m not familiar with the system you mentioned.

      Then again, as I mentioned in the introduction I do translation as a part of my work, which is why I’m not as fully immersed in the translation world as I’m sure others are.

      It’s hard to self judge, and my skill varies greatly on the subject, but I’d like to think that I’m at the Good level.

  2. Companies I work with often ask me to translate from Japanese to English or even to Chinese whereas my English and especially my Chinese is far from fluency. And they know it. Sometimes they just need someone to do the job fast and that’s all.

    • I think there is definitely some leeway with what is expected, as sometimes just rough translations are all that are needed, especially when the company is requesting this.

      • It probably comes down to cost vs quality. Skilled translators do not come cheap I imagine. I have seen plenty of horrible translations in places where they shouldn’t be (e.g. food item declarations).

        • You bring up a good point that is really easy to notice in Japan. The large amount of bad (and often hysterically) translated things into English. Though that is often just a store owner using an online dictionary and not hiring a translator. Food item declarations though is surprising.

  3. Thank you for posting this. It is really helpful.

    I am also thinking that this may be where speed comes in. I think that it is possible to translate from a very low level and be reasonably accurate…BUT…it takes a long, long, long time. I did a translating project from Swedish for my family, when my Swedish was at a very, very beginning level, but even using Google translate and two Swedish-English dictionaries it took FOREVER! I think it took me 3 weeks of working on it several hours a day to manage two pages. I had it checked by one of my Swedish relatives, who said it was good, and only had a few minor corrections, but…in an employment situation, I can not imagine being allowed that amount of time.

    Also, of course…Swedish and English are very, very close, and one can often manage word for word translations. Even for simple things, word for word translations between Japanese and English are not really possible.

    • Thanks for adding your input. I’m not familiar with Swedish vs. English, but as you mentioned, I would also assume it is probably easier to go between those languages than J-E. But I suppose that on certain subject matters, that don’t involve complex things, it could be possible in a very slow setting to work towards something workable. Especially with “translator copying,” which is a theme I’ll be getting into later, involving using parts of others’ already finished translations on the internet.

    • I would actually argue that you have to be even more careful when translating between related languages. Take the word love. In English, you can love something or someone without that meaning that you have romantic feelings for it. If you say that you loved someone in my native language, Danish, it could get awkward really quickly :)

    • Oh dear of the Danish/English comparison. Well, I would not even think of translating *into* Swedish, or Japanese, for that matter, for a long, long, long time, even for friends or relatives.

      The only reason I think it is easier to translate between Swedish and English than Japanese and English is because of the sentence structure is close enough..not exactly the same, but pretty close. With Japanese, even for simple things, you must flip the entire sentence around to make it even sound close to natural English.

      Also, thinking about it, that project was easier for me than it might have been, as I already knew most of the story…because it was about my family. The things that I did not know, I was able to ask relatives about. It still took a HUGE amount of time though.

      Luckily my Japanese is far better than my Swedish was at that time. Heee…my *Swedish* is better than my Swedish was then. As an aside, sometimes I feel a little bad for my Japanese, as my Swedish is coming along much faster with much, much, much less effort. But then I think that this means it is taking less time away from my Japanese than it would otherwise, so I guess it all works out.

      Actually, this article was really helpful. I am not there yet, in terms of my Japanese being ready to translate, but, I am not as far away as I thought I was. Months to a year away, if I work diligently, not years away, like I thought. Well, to translate Japanese into English, I mean. Translating English into Japanese would still be years away, I would imagine.

  4. Wow, thank you so, so much for writing this series! And your timing is amazing because it is within the last couple of months that I’ve finally felt like I’m just about ready to start actually getting into translation. I’d put myself right around level 50 or 55, so it’s exciting to see that you agree this is the right place to start! (Though I might be a little early I guess :P)

    To prepare myself for translating, I’ve shifted my immersion focus to reading and I’m practicing some translation on Gengo, as well as with newspaper and website articles for fun.

    I’m guessing you might go into this in future posts (so please just let me know to stay tuned if so!), but if not, what would be good places to start with the free freelance work (like specific websites, clients, programs, etc.)?

    My goal is to become a freelance translator. I have an engineering degree so I’m guessing I’ll probably have the most luck with technical translation? Any idea where I could find some free projects to work on in that field?

    Thank you so much!

    • P.S. Sorry, I feel like I bombarded you with information and questions, but I was just excited to find this! :D

    • Hey Jeff. Good to see you again here!

      50-55 will put you at the Beginner level, but you should be well equipped to make a good start. Practicing translation for fun is a great way to get warmed up. Stick with things you like, so you can have fun while doing it.

      Yes, I will go into good places to start with freelance work in a later post in the series.

      An engineering degree will look great for technical translation. There is a lot of translation work in this field. When I go into where to begin, it should help you for engineering translation as well.

      And don’t worry, I’m used to being bombarded with information and questions!

      • Thank you so much for the reply! And it’s good to be back here :D Thank you for continuing to make such great content!

  5. Well, I feel like the “required level” indicated is a lot more flexible than mentioned.

    I am not officially a translator either, but my job does require me to translate a LOT of stuff. It used to be French -> English and English -> French, but 7 years ago Japanese cropped up in there as well (and is not going anywhere).

    It’s hard to remember, but I guess I was around level 20 at the time (if that). However, it didn’t feel so bad, for two reasons:
    – I already had experience translating. As you mentioned, it IS a separate skill. If you have experience translating into a given language (e.g. -> E), you can just “skip” the beginner phase if you only change the source language (e.g. J -> E instead of F -> E).
    – It was mostly technical stuff, which was part of my field of expertise. It lead to an interesting situation where I already knew what they wanted to say, and understanding only a few words per sentence was enough to understand the whole. As a bonus, technical terms were mostly katakana version of their English equivalent, so no problem their either.

    So, I guess my point is that you can be a J-E translator even with sub-optimal J skills by using your experience in other areas instead.

    A small(?) caveat: I mentioned that it’s hard to remember because a former colleague reminded me I had apparently a much harder time than what I describe here, so I wonder how much is just selective memory. I might just remember the feeling of accomplishment of being done, and not the tears of blood I cried during the process…

    • Experience will vary of course, but you bring up a point that translating something as a side-job part of your regular job will probably be different than being hired as a translator.

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