How to improve as a translator—advice for the frustrated freelancer (J)

To meet a really high standard of quality, a translation needs to fulfill the following two criteria: it should (a) accurately capture the meaning of the source text, and (b) read smoothly—just as if it had been originally written in the target language.

This is significantly harder to achieve when translating into English from Japanese than from a closely related European language (such as French or Spanish).

Japanese and English have completely different grammatical formations, sentence structures and writing conventions. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear an aspiring J-to-E translator say: “I understand exactly what the Japanese text means—I just don’t know how to put it into natural English”.

There is no easy answer to this problem. The serious translator needs to develop their English writing skills as much as possible, and to avoid compromising and producing slapdash writing just to get the job out of the door. Don’t lose heart, ‘though—with experience and perseverance, the translation process does become easier!

In order to produce natural-sounding English output, don’t be afraid to do the following when necessary:

• Depart radically from the order of the Japanese sentence.
• Use idiom and paraphrase.
• Split long sentences into two or more English sentences.
• Combine short sentences into one English sentence.
• Use words or terms that do not feature prominently in standard Japanese-English dictionary definitions for the Japanese word or term.

In short, be creative and make bold, independent decisions. The author of the source document may own the original, but is rarely qualified to tell the translator how to express the same meaning in English.

Another useful exercise is to have your work reviewed by others. A native Japanese speaker (with a good command of English) should be able to point out errors in meaning and missed nuance; a fellow English speaker with advanced writing skills (but not necessarily any Japanese ability) will be able to point out stylistic inconsistencies and lapses.

Naturally, feedback from clients should also be taken on board (subject to their ability to assess how well your translation plays with the target audience).

To re-iterate, the ultimate goal is to produce text that reads like an original—not a translation. Just as for a referee or an umpire in sport, the highest accolade for a translator is when the audience didn’t even notice they were there.