Three Things to Remember when Looking for an Interpreter

Companies doing business in Japan or private individuals living here will sometimes find themselves in need of an interpreter.

If you have never bought interpreting services before, here are three points to bear in mind.

Book early!
Good interpreters are in high demand, their schedules often filling up weeks and months in advance. To be on the safe side, try to allow at least eight weeks for the process—that is, if you are going through an intermediary such as a languages services provider (LSP) or agency, contact them two months in advance, stipulating your requirements.
Some of the larger, more established, LSPs will simply reject out of hand requests for interpreting that come in too late in the day.

Provide as much detail as possible about the assignment
It will greatly help the LSP to find you a suitable interpreter if you can provide them with as much logistical information as possible from the get-go. Specifically, the LSP will need to know the answers to the following questions:
(1) On what date or dates will interpreting be required?
(2) Between which language pair(s) will interpreting be required?
(3) Where is the location of the meeting or event?
(4) What is the nature of the subject matter that will be discussed?
(5) On each day of the assignment, what will the start and end times be (in terms of the interpreting requirement)?
(6) Will simultaneous interpreting be needed, or just consecutive interpreting?
(7) Will any special equipment be required?
In particular, questions (1)–(4) are key information (and it is surprising how many potential clients omit one or more of these items of information when making contact).
Generally, interpreters are hired by the day or the half-day: one day being eight hours including a one-hour break, and half a day being three-and-a-half hours. If extra interpreting hours are required in excess of eight (or three-and-a-half hours), this is charged as overtime by the hour. Even if the interpreting assignment is shorter than half a day (e.g. only one or two hours), clients are still charged for half a day, in recognition of the fact that the interpreter must also spend time traveling to and from the venue.
For full days—or complete half days—of interpreting, the client is generally not charged for the interpreter’s travel time, but may be charged for his or her travel costs, if the interpreter must travel from a remote location (e.g. from another city).
Most interpreting requests are for “consecutive” interpreting, where the interpreter listens, then interprets into the other language. The other type of interpreting is “simultaneous” interpreting, where the interpreter listens and speaks simultaneously, so that the client does not have to stop mid-flow. Simultaneous interpreting is substantially more difficult (and tiring!) than consecutive, which is reflected in the relative pricing. Additionally, simultaneous interpreters cannot be expected to work for more than half an hour at a stretch without a break, so simultaneous interpreting assignments that exceed half an hour will require at least two interpreters, further increasing the cost.
Some assignments may require that the interpreter sit in a special booth and that the audience listen through multi-channel radio headsets. This should be established in advance with the LSP and will entail an additional cost for equipment rental.

Provide reference and background material
Interpreting is a difficult and demanding task, and anything that you can do to make the interpreter’s job easier will enable him or her to provide that much better a service. Any existing material that has been prepared in advance (such as a presentation or a speech) should be provided to the LSP in advance—preferably in electronic form. Meeting agendas, topic summaries, and glossaries of preferred technical terms can also be a godsend for the interpreter. The LSP will try to ensure that the interpreter is as fully briefed and prepared as possible, so copious reference from the client is always most welcome.

Posted in Frequently asked questions, Interpreting, Japan | Comments Off

The Client’s Translation Dilemma

The client’s translation dilemma is this: clients generally do not need translation, until they need translation, and then they really need translation, like, NOW.
If the client has never used translation services before, they will not know which type of service they need or where to get it. They will be unaware of the time and cost of translation. In addition, general public awareness of translation as a service is low, and many people believe that translation is all done by computers instantaneously for free these days. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the flash translation project is a large one of several tens of thousands of words of text, then cost in both time and money can be surprising.
Knowing the basics of translation can save a lot of time and anguish, so spend a little time to get that knowledge by reading this blog and reviewing Einstein’s guide to translation services published by Honyaku Plus.

Einstein’s guide to the translation services

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“But that’s what it says in the source text!”

George Orwell

George Orwell: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

The road to translation hell is paved with slavish adherence to the source text. Some translators follow a word-for-word approach in which every word of the source text has a corresponding word in the translation: if there are six words in the source text, there must be six words in the translation. In less extreme, but no less inane, situations, a translator will use a word from a dictionary that results in an unnatural, and even an unintelligible, translation. When the translator is asked why they wrote this horrible sentence, the response is often, “that’s what it says in the source text.” This phrase reminds me of the famous and sometimes controversial six rules for writing well in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: “vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

In contrast, the holy grail of most professional translation is a translation that reads like a document written in the target language by an educated native speaker. That’s a mouthful, but it means that the translation should read naturally. The reader should not be able to tell that it is a translation. Creating such a natural translation is easier said than done, and I could go on at great length about the whys and wherefores, and yes there are other issues, but all other things being equal, if the translation reads naturally, then the translator did a great job, and this can be your measure of quality even if you do not know the source language.

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Interpreting: Why is it so expensive?

As was covered in an earlier blog post (Translating and interpreting: what’s the difference?), the translator works with the written word, and the interpreter works with the spoken word, and as anyone who has used both services should know, interpreting is much more expensive on the surface. However, when you look at the details, it’s no mystery.Interpreter working with client

The first factor, which may not be eye-rollingly obvious, is that the interpreter must travel some distance to perform the work, in contrast to the translator, who sits in front of a computer to translate. This distance factor alone is a big deal. Whereas the translator can take a small job and use a relatively small amount of time to complete it—thus being available to do the next job that comes in—the interpreter is committed to spending three or more hours to perform even one minute of interpreting. If the interpreter must spend so much time on the road, they are inclined to charge a minimum fee, such as a half day (4 hours).

In some cases, when the distance is quite a bit farther, say a train ride to another city, or even an airplane trip to another country, the travel time becomes billable at some percentage of the half-day or day rate, which adds to the final bill. Then there are the accommodations. In contrast, interpreting is much more labor and time intensive than translation.

Another factor is delivery time. Whereas a translator can puzzle over a difficult sentence at his or her leisure (depending on the deadline), the interpreter must spew forth a reasonably well crafted verbal statement on demand in another language. Some people–the current author included–find it challenging to stutter out an intelligent statement without any time constraints. In that respect, interpreting is like juggling chainsaws. The pinnacle of interpreting difficulty is “simultaneous interpreting,” which requires the interpreter to speak in one language while listening to someone else speak in another. When they do it in languages that are as different as Japanese and English, this is deep black magic, like juggling flaming chainsaws while blindfolded. This costs money.

Yet another factor is supply and demand. Good interpreters seem to have some innate talent that cannot be taught. It can be honed to a high level, but if a person does not have that X factor, then chances are they will never be a top-flight interpreter. This narrows the field of possible service providers for the really important jobs, and it drives up the price.

Those are the basics. So, next time you meet an interpreter, bow with the requisite deference and realize that, no matter what you paid, you are getting a great deal.

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The Palace Ride

On the last weekend of October, Tokyo charity cycling fundraising group the Knights in White Lycra (KIWL) staged the latest edition of their biannual 24-hour Palace Ride in the capital. This event is an adjunct to the KIWL’s main event of the year, the annual sponsored four-day 500-km ride from Tokyo to the Tohoku region, which generally takes place at the end of May.

The Palace Ride involves teams and individuals riding, jogging or walking around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in relays, so that for 24 hours there is at least one participant circling the Palace. Money is raised through entry fees and sponsorship donations, with the proceeds going to the KIWL’s chosen charity, which for 2016 and 2017 is the Japanese non-profit organisation Mirai no Mori.

Mirai no Mori organises life-changing programmes for Japanese children living in institutional care homes. Some are orphans, while others are the victims of parental neglect or abuse. The homes can only accommodate and care for these children until they reach the age of 18, after which they must essentially fend for themselves in the wider world.

Mirai no Mori stages summer and winter camps (funded by personal and corporate donations), and company-sponsored ‘Back to Nature’ days or weekends, which represent an opportunity for employees of the sponsoring company to serve as positive role models, interact with the children and provide them with hope and inspiration.

The camp experience affords the children some release from their everyday stresses and—more important—also gives them confidence, a sense of independence and the opportunity to cultivate invaluable life skills. Crucially, the Mirai no Mori program is not confined to the camps alone. The group also offers the children who attend the camp on-going, long-term support, which significantly increases the chances of a more favourable outcome in their lives.

In heavy rain, the Palace Ride commenced at 3:00pm on Friday 28 October, with Rob Williams, founder of the KIWL, Kozue Oka, chief camp coordinator for Mirai no Mori, Tony Orr and Toru Akiyama leading off. Accompanying them were KIWL stalwart Joanne Wilkinson, her husband David and their two children, Douglas and Rosalind. These brave troopers completed the all-important early laps, exemplifying the spirit of the KIWL and rather putting to shame several more seasoned riders who were deterred by the bad weather and dropped out at the last minute (although, in fairness, all who signed up for the ride did cough up the ¥5,000 entry fee).
Gradually the number of participants grew, notably with two runners from the BNP Paribas team who were lapping the palace at speeds approaching that of the slower cyclists. Others came out to show support and donate money, including radio DJ Guy Perryman—a good friend and promoter of the KIWL.

Mercifully, the rain let up as the ride continued on into the evening and through the night. As Saturday dawned, the weather conditions were somewhat better, and overall coordinator of the Palace Ride Andrew Abbey was able to see the event through to a successful conclusion at precisely 3:00pm on Saturday afternoon.

Altogether around 70 riders and runners took part over the course of the 24 hours, raising around ¥400,000 in the process. This was highly significant as it took the KIWL’s 2016 fundraising total in aid of Mirai no Mori to just over ¥10 million—the highest amount the group has ever raised in a single year since its inception in 2012. This sum will enable around 20 care home children to attend Mirai no Mori’s summer camps for three years in a row and will help fund the organisation’s nascent ‘Leaders in Training’ programme, which is intended to help the older children develop leadership skills and greater self-confidence as they approach the end of their time in care.

The KIWL are but one example of corporate social responsibility (CSR) activism within Tokyo’s foreign community. The amateur boxing event Executive Fight Night, which got started at almost exactly the same time as the KIWL, also raised more than ¥10 million in 2016 for its chosen charity, Shine On! Kids, which offers support to children with cancer and their families.

Giving back to the community in which we have made our homes is now seen by an increasing numbers of foreign professionals as a key element of expatriate life in Japan. Not only is it a rewarding opportunity to help those who are less fortunate, it is also a great way to get out, keep fit and immerse oneself in Tokyo’s vibrant cosmopolitan landscape.

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What is the difference between a “translation company” and a “translation agency”?

Within the language services industry, the terms “company” and “agency” are often used interchangeably. Thus, a company that provides translation services to other companies might be referred to by its clients and contractors as either a “translation company” or a “translation agency”.

In some contexts, however, the term “agency” does have certain pejorative connotations. When freelance translators get together and discuss the relative merits of working for direct clients as opposed to “agencies”, the view is sometimes expressed that agencies get to keep a significant chunk of the money paid out by the client, despite adding little or nothing of value to the finished product.

The implication is that the agency has no in-house capabilities that are directly relevant to maintaining or improving the quality and accuracy of the translation (i.e. no in-house translation, checking or editing capability), and is thus merely trading on its access to skilled freelancers.
A further implication is that such agencies lack an in-depth understanding of the complexities of the translation process and are likely to cut corners (for example, by skimping on the checking or editing processes) in order to maximize revenue.

This may well be a valid criticism of some firms. However, there are numerous other language service providers (Honyaku Plus included) whose staff includes full-time in-house translators who carry out a significant proportion of the translation projects that the company undertakes for its clients. This type of company will likely still outsource some fraction of the work that it carries out to freelancers—either because its in-house translators are fully occupied or because the job at hand requires a translator with a particular specialization.

Given this implicit distinction between the two words, we at Honyaku Plus always prefer to be described as a “translation company” rather than a “translation agency”, as we do employ in-house translators and take enormous care in ensuring that the work which we deliver has been thoroughly checked and edited.

In contrast, the interpreters that we supply to clients are all freelancers whom we engage on a per-project basis. Thus, we would not quarrel with the description “interpreting agency” as it applies to us.

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What is so special about translation between Japanese and English?

The global translation industry is not a monolithic whole, but rather a collection of separate markets. The French to English (F to E) market is different from the German to English (G to E) market, which is different from the Arabic to English market (Ar to E). They are different in many ways. The people doing the translation are different; the demand for translation and the supply of translators varies between language pairs and direction; and the type of materials being translated are different. These factors differentiate translation markets and affect translation prices. Boiled down to the basics, there are supply-side factors and demand-side factors.

Looking at the supply side, a translator must be able to comprehend the language of the original document, called the source language, and then be able to write like a native speaker in the translation language, called the target language. The difficulty in doing so will affect the supply side of the equation. For example, while there may be a multitude of native English speaking translators that can understand Spanish, there is a dearth of native English speaking translators that can understand, say, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic. This will drive up the price of quality Chinese to English translation.

The demand side is driven by economic activity in that language. For example, the United States is the largest economy in the world, so there is a large demand for translation from English to other languages. There is not, however, a huge demand for, say Indonesian translation into English, because of the relatively small trade volume from Indonesia to the US. This will also make it harder to find Indonesian translators, so prices might be a little higher.

Now let’s look at Japan. Japan became the world’s third largest economy in the 1970s, following that of the United States and the Soviet Union. Japan became the world’s second largest economy after the decline of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, and it held that position until about 2010, when it was replaced by China as the second largest economy. However, Japan continues to be the third largest economy today. Yet, the character of the Chinese and Japanese economies are different, with Japan’s economy based on exports of advanced technology ( and China’s based on export of low-paying manufactured  products ( This is important, as Japan files for more US patents than any other country, and the Japanese patent applications account for 39% of all patents ever filed in the US by a foreign country, and 18% of all patents ever filed in the US. This demonstrates that the character of economic activity in a country can affect the translation industry. For example, where there are a lot of financial and technological exchanges, there will be a lot more translation required in the area of finance, ICT, law, marketing, and other areas. In contrast, when the economic activity is largely outsourced manufacturing, such as with China, there is much less need for translation.

Japan also has the lowest English capability of all the G7 countries with a “moderate” rating placing it 30th in the world on the global English proficiency index ( Though English has been taught in the six years of junior high and high school–and starting in the fourth grade of elementary school more recently–the focus is on basic reading and writing at about 1 hour a week, and so Japanese students rarely achieve a college reading level. This means that virtually all the written materials generated by this economic giant have to be translated for consumption outside of Japan. Patents, legal documents, government documents, financial reports, meeting minutes, CSR presentations, and just about any information that is of use in business must be translated, and it is translated primarily into English. That is just on the J to E side of the equation. The situation is similar on the E to J side. The numerous foreign companies doing business in Japan must also have most, if not all, of their materials–corporate regulations, training materials, manuals, sales and marketing materials, etc.–translated into Japanese for use by the local staff. The demand for translation in both directions is immense relative to other markets.

On the supply side, the translators, the lack of proficiency in English tends to mean that the number of native speakers of Japanese who are competent translators of English are few compared to the number of translators in other markets and the volume of E to J work. On the J to E side, the situation is even worse. Japan has one of the most, if not the most, complex written languages in the world according to some sources. (, and thus the number of native speakers of English who are literate in Japanese is minuscule compared to the volume of work. Something must be done, however, and thus a great deal of the J to E translation being done is done by native speakers of Japanese, thus violating the basic rule of quality translation: translate only into your native language.

In the end, obtaining quality translation from both E to J and J to E is difficult, and the rates for these two language pairs are also much higher than those for any other commonly translated language pair in the world.

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A bridge too far—how not to manage a large-scale translation project

A couple of years ago, one of the largest translation agencies in the world was left with egg on its corporate face when it undertook an enormous translation project on an incredibly tight schedule. Reputedly, the job called for the translation from Japanese into English of tens of millions of characters of text (discovery documents in the acquisition of a Japanese technology company by a US firm), with the requirement that this enormous task be completed in just two weeks.

Since it is highly unlikely that a single translator could accomplish anywhere close to 1% of this volume in the allotted timeframe, the agency was faced with the task of immediately finding hundreds of translators who could work in parallel on this job.

The agency’s project managers will have swiftly realized immediately that this would be no easy task, as the number of J-E translators worldwide is actually not that large. In desperation they began sub-contracting sections of the project out to smaller agencies, and as the project deadline approached (and passed), freelance Japanese-to-English translators around the world were bombarded with repeated requests via e-mail and telephone to accept a small portion of the job. This prompted much criticism of the agency on translation-related mailing lists and SNS groups.

To anyone with experience in the translation industry, it is obvious that the final product must have been a horrendous hodge-podge of inconsistent terminology and wildly varying levels of written-English quality.

The saving grace for the agency may have been that most of the output will likely have gone unread by the client (if the object of the exercise was simply to have English text available as part of the due-diligence process). However, if the acquiring party in a multi-billion dollar acquisition is working off such potentially unreliable documentation, it is not hard to envisage major problems ensuing as the process moves forward.

It would be fascinating to know the substance of the discussions between agency and client that led up to their acceptance of the job. Was the agency upfront about the inevitable problems involved, or did it gloss them over and simply respond that the volume was manageable within the stipulated timescale?

Clearly, they bit off more than they could chew—in the process tarnishing their reputation and becoming the butt of ridicule within the J-to-E translation community. The episode does, however, raise instructive practical and ethical questions relating to large-scale translation project management.

How, then, should a translation company approach a high-volume project? Imagine a (somewhat smaller) J-to-E translation job consisting of half a million Japanese characters in the field of information technology (IT), with a deadline of one month from the day on which the client places the formal order.

Having accepted the job, the translation company must calculate its needs in terms of personnel resources (translators, checkers and editors), secure the services of qualified contractors, divide up the work between them, and set interim deadlines for each stage of the process.

Time must be allocated for checking, revision and editing as well as translation, so each translator would have somewhat less than one month (say, three weeks) in which to complete their allocated tranche. Assuming that the translators will work six days a week and average 4000 characters per day, each individual translator should be capable of translating approximately 70,000 characters within the timeframe. Hence, the entire project would require seven translators.

The first priority will be to secure the services of a sufficient number of translators who are properly qualified, in terms of their subject specialization and the quality of their output. (Simply being specialized in IT might not be enough, as the job may require in-depth knowledge of a particular branch of IT, such as semiconductors or telecommunications. It is the responsibility of the translation company to find people with the relevant knowledge.)

The translation company may already have enough qualified translators in its database. If it does not (or if too few in the database are available), it will have to quickly seek out more.
Having secured sufficient translation resources, the translation company must also put in place a framework to maximize the level of accuracy and consistency in the translation. This will consist of making relevant reference material available to the translators, such as glossaries supplied by the client or documents previously translated for the client, and enabling the translators themselves to collaborate to establish consistent terminology (for example, by creating an on-line glossary that the translators can edit and annotate).

Several native Japanese speakers will be required to check the accuracy of the translators’ work and to flag any mistakes that they find. Assuming that a checker can check approximately 500 English words (the translation of roughly 1000 Japanese characters) an hour and can work a 40-hour week, a single checker could probably handle the entire output from two translators. Hence, four checkers would likely suffice. Given the volume and timescale, each translator would have to submit their output in sections, so that the checking could take place in parallel with the translation. (This is not ideal from the translator’s point of view, as by the end of the job they may be having second thoughts about choices of terms and phrases that they made earlier on. However, on-line collaboration between the translators, checkers and editor can mitigate this issue). Checked sections would then be returned to the translator for modification based on the checker’s in-file comments. Each translator would have to fit this revision work into their translation schedule.

The final stage before delivery to the client would be an edit of the entire text, which would be around 250,000 English words in length. With so many people involved in the job, the edit would be crucial to ensuring consistency in terms of terminology and style. This task would likely take a single editor the best part of a week, so in order to meet the final deadline it might prove necessary to juggle the schedule so that the editing overlapped the latter stages of checking and revision.

This is a theoretical scenario; however, the numbers quoted are realistic and serve to illustrate the potential complexity of large-scale translation projects. Other factors can also intrude to make the process even more management-intensive, such as file-formatting issues and the sudden unavailability of a contractor due to unforeseen circumstances.

In order to ensure the best possible finished product, translation companies and potential clients need to engage in frank dialogue about what is realistically possible within a given timeframe. If a client’s deadline demands are extreme, the agency has a responsibility to make the client fully aware that quality is sure to suffer as a result.

What, then, is the most ethical response to a client that insists that it needs an extremely high volume of material translated in an unrealistically short time? One solution might be for the translation company to accept only as much of the job as they felt they could do to a reasonable minimum standard of quality in the time allowed. Of course, this might lose them the account if the client were to insist that it needed a sole provider and that quality was not an issue. If that were really the case, however, their needs could be met by machine translation software—essentially the hi-tech equivalent of 100 monkeys equipped with typewriters.

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The ROI of translation – When is a bad translation good?

Honyaku Plus provides high-quality translation and interpreting services. High-quality  translation and interpreting is generally hard to find, and yet it is so important when you need it. There are lots of “alternative brands” of translation out there that the inexperienced client may unknowingly use, with the obvious negative consequences. This is why we go to such great lengths to educate translation clients through this blog.

A correlative to high quality is high price, and although Honyaku Plus is not the highest priced translation in the market, it is also not the cheapest (we consider ourselves the “best value” brand). You get what you pay for in most cases.

So, what about the client whose top priority is cost savings rather than high quality? They don’t need to “wow” anybody, they just need the information, and they need it within budget. Internal reports and product manuals come to mind. Well, Honyaku Plus can do that too. We have flexible pricing for volume jobs, and we can make other adjustments for the “cost sensitive” project.

There are other options, however.

We created a general consumer education brochure about the translation industry that summarizes these options, which you can download here. A more complete description is given below.

1. Machine translation.

This is scraping the bottom of the quality barrel. With virtually unusable output in most cases, its sole benefit is that it is free. We only include this option because most uninitiated clients have the idea that machine translation is an option, when it really isn’t in most business cases.

2. Automated agencies. is one of the few automated agencies. These agencies are trying to monetize the latent demand in low-end translation: the type of translation that real translation companies don’t need or want because the users of these types of services do not want to pay real money for real translation.

The automated agency leverages technology to cut the cost of finding translators and the cost of matching translators with clients. Some translators sign up because the bar to entry is lower than most agencies. The translators sometimes can just sign up, and sometimes they have to pass a simple test to qualify. If the service is an honest one, the client is forewarned that real quality is obtained from real professional translators (which they will provide for real prices, in which case the automated service is a loss leader for professional translation services).

It is relatively low cost, but it is also lower paying for the translators, and so it tends to attract people without experience, and professional translators tend to stay away, preferring instead to develop relationships with direct clients or professional agencies.

3. Freelance translators.

For the company with a need for translation services over a longer period of time, there are freelance translators that can be hired directly by a company (if your company allows contracting with non-corporate entities, of which many freelancers are). The agency is cut out, and the freelancer may provide lower prices (and maybe not), but the same translator can  be used, which benefits the client over time.

The downside is that the company now has to do the agency’s job by managing the translator relationship and dealing with the absence of the translator during vacations, holidays, weekends, illness, unavailability due to other work, etc. An agency would have many more translation resources available to deal with these situations. The client also has to take on all quality control responsibility.

A freelancer also has capacity limitations because they work alone, whereas an agency can muster enough people to get large jobs done on tight deadlines.

That just about sums it up: a bad translation is good when the quality requirement is low and does not justify the cost of high-quality translation. Honyaku Plus can often adjust the translation process to meet the client’s budget while maintaining quality, so feel free consult our project manager via our web form with the details of your project, or call 03-5913-8115 (international +81-3-5913-8115) between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. JST.

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The good, the bad and the ugly—ensuring quality in Japanese‑to‑English translation

(Since the terms “translation” and “interpreting” are often confused, it is worth reiterating that “translation” refers solely to the rendering of the written word into another language. The terms “source language” and “target language” refer respectively to the language of the original text and the language into which it is translated. The following abbreviations are also used: J2E for “Japanese‑to‑English”, NSE for “native speaker of English” and NSJ for “native speaker of Japanese”.)

Something is rotten in the state of the J2E translation market in Japan. In Europe it is axiomatic that a translator should only translate into his or her own native language. Thus, only a native German speaker will undertake an English‑to‑German translation. The rationale is that even a person who has studied another language extensively will inevitably have a greater “active” command of his native language than of his second language. The term “active” denotes the ability to identify the proper word in a given context, to use technical terminology and idiom, and to accurately craft natural‑sounding sentences. (Correspondingly, “passive” facility denotes the ability to comprehend text or speech in the language.) A true bilingual may have an equally well developed active facility in two languages, but such people are extremely rare.

Translation is essentially a two‑stage process—thorough comprehension of the source text followed by precise rendition of the meaning into the target language in written form. Only the second stage—writing—requires an active command of the target language. Thus a translator ought to be a native speaker of the target language, not the source language. Moreover, few people write well in their own native language (let alone in one they have acquired). The number of people who can also write well in a second language is much lower—the large majority undoubtedly being people working in pairs of languages that are structurally similar, such as Japanese and Korean. For a language pair as structurally dissimilar as English and Japanese, people with strong writing ability in both are virtually non‑existent.

In Japan, however, with its huge J2E translation market, the “target‑language native speaker only” caveat goes largely ignored, and much of this J2E material ends up being translated by NSJs—often with dire results. There are several reasons for this.

First, there is a shortage of proficient NSE translators, since Japanese is still not studied much in English‑speaking countries (except for Australia). Hence, relatively few NSEs have attained a level of Japanese reading ability sufficient to enable them to translate effectively. (The increasing prevalence of software dictionaries, which spare the translator the need to memorize kanji readings, has alleviated this situation somewhat.) Hence, a company requiring J2E translation may struggle to find a suitable NSE translator.

Second, some companies with no foreign staff attempt to save money by assigning translation tasks to in‑house NSJ staffers—no matter how limited their English ability.

Third, there is a perception in Japan that Japanese is so complex and subtle that only NSJs can understand its nuances well enough to translate from Japanese into another language—and therefore that no NSE could ever comprehend Japanese well enough to adequately render the meaning of a source text into English.

Fourth, some Japanese managers believe that the best way to manage J2E translation is to have an NSJ familiar with the subject matter translate the source text and an NSE checker edit the resulting English text to produce a polished final version. This assumes that although the translator’s English may not be perfect, his output will be clear enough for the editor to easily divine the correct meaning and turn the text into natural English.

Fifth, NSE J2E translators are often less adept at speaking Japanese than at comprehending written Japanese (two quite distinct skills), and this hampers their ability to convince potential clients to entrust them with J2E translation projects.
Sixth, some English documents are intended purely “for show”—not to be read or understood. Hence, the quality of the English is immaterial.

Experience has consistently demonstrated, however, that the rationales for using non‑NSE translators for J2E translation are fundamentally flawed. Twenty-five years ago Japan was universally admired for its consumer electronics devices, but ridiculed for the English contained in the accompanying user’s manuals, which provided a stark illustration of the need to avoid non‑native writing in the commercial arena. The manufacturers have largely rectified this problem and now produce manuals of a quality commensurate with their products. However, NSJ‑authored English is still prevalent in Japan—in company reports, in corporate promotional literature, on company websites, and on barely comprehensible signs in airports, conference centres and sports stadia throughout the country.

Two reasons cited above for reliance on J2E translation by NSJs merit further discussion.

The belief that only an NSJ can appreciate the subtleties of Japanese well enough to render the meaning correctly in English is rubbish, and denigrates the intelligence and diligence of numerous non‑Japanese students of the language. As stated, the translation process requires only a passive understanding of the source language, and the diligent student can match an NSJ in this regard.

The notion that acceptable J2E translation might be produced by an NSE checker correcting the output of an NSJ translator is not so easily dismissed. (The arrangement may indeed be workable under ideal conditions, with the NSE checker having unlimited access to the NSJ translator for clarification of questionable points; however, this is rare in practice.) The operative word here, however, is “acceptable”. Editing non‑native English rarely results in text that reads smoothly. More importantly, the individual or company commissioning the translation will often seriously over‑estimate the translator’s English ability and under‑estimate how difficult it will be for the NSE checker to divine the intended meaning. Thus, in practice misunderstandings are likely to occur between the translator and checker, resulting in errors of meaning and nuance. Hence, the final text will be prone to imperfection—in both accuracy and style.

Advocates of the NSJ translator/NSE checker combination for J2E translation often buttress their claims with the argument that an NSJ translator with specialist knowledge of the field will do a better job than an NSE who lacks such knowledge. This is a complete red herring, however. Knowledge of the subject and of the technical vocabulary and phraseology used in the relevant literature will naturally confer a significant advantage. However, this alone will be insufficient to overcome the deficiencies inherent in using a non‑native translator. High‑quality J2E translation of specialist material certainly requires an NSE translator with sufficient understanding of the subject and adequate knowledge of the attendant terminology. However, this is entirely separate from the issue of the translator’s native language.

How, then, can top‑quality J2E translation be achieved? Experience demonstrates that consistently excellent results can be obtained as follows: first, a qualified NSE translator with knowledge of the subject matter translates the source document; second, an NSJ checker with an advanced level of English ability checks the translation against the original source text and points out any outright errors or mistakes in nuance; third, the NSE translator incorporates the NSJ checker’s corrections into the translated text; and fourth, an NSE editor performs a final stylistic edit and check for consistency. The two NSEs thus make maximum use of their active facility in English, while the NSJ brings to bear his likely superior passive facility with Japanese. This use of high‑quality personnel and three pairs of eyes is a proven method of achieving a near‑perfect translation that will read as smoothly as an original document written in English.

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