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A how-to guide to becoming a translator of how-to guides

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Thinking back, I never set out with the intention of becoming a translator. I was employed by a small travel agency in Osaka and was only dimly aware that such an occupation even existed. But word got around that I could read Japanese, and one winter day in 1975 I was approached by an inventor who had obtained a 実用新案 (jitsuyōshinan, utility patent) for his 発明 (hatsumei, invention) — a foot-operated gadget that worked, as he explained to me 「足踏みで洋式トイレの便座を持ち上げられる」 (ashibumi de yōshiki toire no benza wo mochiagerareru, by using foot pressure to raise the seats on Western-style toilets).

His contraption, he explained, appealed to fastidious people with 潔癖性 (keppeki-shō, an obsession with cleanliness), and he was eager to investigate the sales potential of his invention in foreign markets.

Brandishing a 四色のペラのチラシ (yonshoku no pera no chirashi, single-sheet four-color leaflet) in Japanese, he implored “Schreiber-san,” 「これを英語に翻訳してくれませんか?」(“Kore wo eigo ni honyaku shite kuremasenka?” “Won’t you please translate this into English?”).

As it turned out, the job was 朝飯前 (asameshi-mae, so easy I could finish it before breakfast). I vaguely recall he found my work acceptable and paid me in cash, upon which I lost my status as an amateur.

If you can type with reasonable speed and accuracy and possess good writing and communications skills in your native language, you might want to consider trying your hand at translation. It’s also a very practical way to learn Japanese — while getting paid for it.

Of course, it also helps to have general knowledge and a broad interest in the world at large. Familiarity with reference books and search engines is a definite plus. And if you want to make any money at the trade, the ability to meet 締め切り (shimekiri, deadlines) is an absolute must.

At the very minimum a translator is also expected to be familiar with the basic 専門用語 (senmon yōgo, specialized terminology) of the subject matter. As a starting point for audio electronics, I needed to know the words that appear in a product’s main 仕様 (shiyō, specifications), terms such as 最大出力 (saidai shutsuryoku, maximum output power), 電圧 (den’atsu, electric pressure, i.e., voltage) and 消費電力 (shōhi denryoku, power consumption).

My limited expertise on toilet gadgetry was of little advantage in seeking more work, but as it turned out, there was steady demand for translators of 取扱説明書 (toriatsukai setsumeisho, owner’s manuals or instruction booklets) for home-electronics products, and through a friend’s introduction I found myself employed in the 貿易部 (boeki-bu, international trade division) of a now-defunct medium-size audio manufacturer, a Sony affiliate called アイワ (Aiwa Co., Ltd.).

At the time I joined the company, Aiwa’s owner’s manuals were deservedly notorious for their convoluted wording and occasional incomprehensibility. In its defense I would say they were certainly no worse than those produced by competitors. One problem (which I suppose still persists to some degree) stemmed from the rush to have the manuals finished in time to be printed up and packed with the products at the factory. In many cases we were lucky to have photographs or a mockup prototype (non-working model) to refer to. Only rarely could the translator spend time with a working model of the export version of the product with which to confirm how it actually functioned.

Fortunately the contents of most manuals began and ended pretty much the same, and they could hardly be described as rocket science. They invariably began with obvious instructions, such as 電源コードを家庭用電源コンセントに接続する (dengen kōdo wo katei-yō dengen konsento ni setsuzoku suru, Insert the power cord into a standard household power outlet/socket). This would be followed by 電源を入れる (Dengen wo ireru, Turn on the power).

Near the front page was 各部の名前と主な動き (kakubu no namae to omo na ugoki, names of the various parts and their main functions). At the end was one or two pages with the header 困ったときは (Kommata toki wa, when problems occur — usually rendered in English as “trouble-shooting”).

By around 1990, I was assigned to translate an article about Japan’s space program for Japan Quarterly magazine. Two years later I toured the Space Center at Tanegashima island for another article. In roughly 15 years, I had managed to progress from product instruction manuals to actual rocket science.