General

Knowing how to write is a necessary skill if you want to work in translation

by Paul Dargan

Contributing Writer

Any great chef can whip up an omelet. But each has their own style — the herb-rich French omelet, the albumin-heavy American omelet, the sweet Japanese tamagoyaki, the list goes on — but either way, you can expect to be served up something tasty.

That said, most world-class chefs aren’t famous because of how good their omelets are. It’s more along the lines of: “I know you probably know how to make a good omelet, but I didn’t come to the top steakhouse in Kobe to have you crack a couple of eggs over the stove.”

The point is, when it comes to being an accomplished translator, your linguistic ability should be highly refined and never called into doubt, but that skill in and of itself is rarely what employers are looking for. What sets good translators apart from the rest is their ability as writers, and that ability is dependent on two qualities — how broad your foundational knowledge is, and how easily you can adapt to various kinds of writing.

In just two years working for a translation company, I’ve handled over 700 assignments including hair care product descriptions, shareholder meeting reports, museum brochures, beer catchphrases, medical facility tour scripts and university magazine articles. Every one of these assignments asked something unique of me, whether it was some level of industry-specific background knowledge or, more importantly, a manner of writing that was appropriate given the field and intended audience.

The most important thing to understand is that when you join a translation company, you’re not only joining the translation industry — you’re joining every industry that company translates for. If you’re not prepared to be flexible and commit to on-the-fly research about various realms of knowledge, you may find yourself in a pickle over even minor assignments.

What this means, in a nutshell, is knowing how to make a damned good omelet. Now that Japan’s international tourism and foreign employment rate is on the rise, we’re catering to industries that have not experienced any large-scale translation before, meaning that a fair amount of impromptu research and first-time fact checking is happening in Japanese. So, trust me when I say that climbing the ranks of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test and the Japan Kanji Testing Foundation’s “Kanji Kentei” will make all that research much less of a headache.

Don’t get overwhelmed by all this — not even Gordon Ramsay learned how to cook filet mignon overnight. But, neither did he assume that making a tasty omelet would alone qualify him for the world stage. So, my advice to aspiring translators is: In addition to refining your Japanese ability as much as possible, expand your knowledge base to develop a flexible and adaptable approach to writing. JLPT N1 looks great on a resume, but proving yourself as a flexible writer is going to work wonders for your long-term career as a translator. Do that, and you’ll be earning Michelin stars of your own in no time.