Becoming a Japanese-English translator in 2020

Whether you’re switching to this path for something new, or you’ve been dreaming of becoming one since you were a child (as I have), becoming a Japanese-English translator these days is not easy. The bar is constantly getting raised by amazing translators all over the world, and people are accepting less and less pay to translate what they love. The advice on how to enter this career may seem vague and different for everyone, and that’s because it is. In Jennifer O’Donnell’s recent talk for JAT, she explained how “all routes lead to games (translation)” and no one person’s journey to their current role was the same.

I began my journey to become a J-E translator around this time last year, at the beginning of my last year of university (which I recommend other students do as well!). Though veterans in the field have a lot of amazing advice to give, I thought that I would share how my own journey has been in the past year, and what I recommend to those also trying to break into this career in these strange new times.


If you’re reading this, you most likely clicked on the link from Twitter, so you probably already know how important this step is. I’m not exaggerating when I say 100% of the translation work I have gotten since starting as a freelancer started with Twitter. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Follow fellow translators. They have great advice and insight! They’re also all human (I assume) and it feels like a real community of people who care and love what they do.
  • Follow publishers, agencies, and companies you want to work for. For example, if you want to translate manga, follow manga publishers. Sometimes they’ll tweet about job openings, and you want to be the first to know and apply ASAP!
  • Follow translation or Japanese creative organisations. They often post useful articles and links to sign up for interesting interviews and talks, especially during this pandemic when everything has moved online!
  • Link to other things related to your work. This could be a blog like the very one you’re reading, a Ko-fi page for donations, or a Carrd portfolio of your work so far.
  • Actually tweet and interact with people. Tweet about translation or Japanese media that you like (bonus points if you translate Japanese tweets about it!). Show that you know a bit and care about the things you want to translate, and people will see that you’re in this for the long haul and know what you’re on about. Be kind and take this as an opportunity to make friends who love the same things you do. Also make sure people feel welcome to DM you!

Join groups

Tagging onto that last bullet point, I recommend that you join some groups to interact privately with other translators or Japanese media professionals as well. These might be on an invite-only basis, but there are some you can request or pay to join.

Definitely request to join Hon-Yaks, a free community with a Discord server for professionals and newbies alike in the video game and media localisation community (most are involved with Japanese media). There you can discuss the industry, ask for advice with freelancing or translation, make friends, and be the first to see relevant new jobs pop up. I have gotten a couple of jobs through it myself! It’s a lovely community run by some great people. You might need a little bit of experience or practice under your belt before you ask to join.

You can also join professional translators’ organisations such as JAT (Japan Association of Translators). There is a fee, but you will be able to access years of professional talks, get discounts on events, network, and have your profile listed in their online directory.

Both of these are good ways to find mentors or friends who can check your work or find helpful articles and videos on J-E translation without having to pay for classes.

Practice, practice, practice

I know, boring, right? I LOVE translating, but it was a little disheartening that after getting a degree in Japanese and taking translation classes I still couldn’t win any contests or pass every single agency translation test I attempted, let alone jump straight into a fancy job at Nintendo (why did you think that would be so easy, baby Leo?). But don’t worry, it really does come with practice, as long as you have a dedication to the craft that cannot be swayed by a few failures. 七転び八起きですね。

Taking J-E translation classes can be a good way to work on your skills and get more confident in translating. Plus, it’s not bad on your resume. Don’t worry if you can’t do this one, since it can be pricey and you don’t actually need a degree or qualifications to become a translator. Here are the classes that have been recommended to me the most in case you are interested:

Taking as many translation tests as you can is another good way to practice. You might not pass every one and the ones you fail may feel like a waste of time, but they’re not. Especially if you can get feedback on where you went wrong so you can know for next time. Also, it’s better to get used to taking tests. Even if you pass the first one an agency gives you, they might not send you any work after. I’ve passed tests with a lot more agencies than those which have ever actually sent me any work to do. Here are some tips for taking tests:

  • If you are allowed to write comments – for example in a comment column in a video game test in an Excel file – then write comments on meanings you were unsure about, potential other translations, or a brief explanation of your choices. Don’t go overboard with this, but if the choice is there, it’s likely there for a reason!
  • Don’t rush it. Doing it fast isn’t necessarily what they’re looking for, even if they ask how long you took. You still need time to go over it and edit it and make sure that you’re producing the best quality you can to convince them to hire you. Usually I set aside 2-3 hours for the average translation test I receive.
  • Don’t be afraid to try again after some time has passed. This is also a good way to see how you have improved.

Apply to translation contests. Not only is there the incentive of a prize, but this is a great opportunity to practice and have a sample of your work for your portfolio. Since the end result isn’t going to an actual client, you have the freedom to be more creative as well. Here is a page maintained by Jennifer O’Donnell with an up-to-date list of translation contests you can take part in, which usually occur annually.

Also, hopefully it goes without saying that you need to keep up your Japanese and English skills as well. Study both of them, read in both of them, consume media in both of them. Maybe try writing your own original stuff in English, or study for a particular goal like the JLPT (in most cases, you don’t need N2 or N1 to get a translation job, but it can help). Understanding the source language and being able to write well in the target language are both essential skills to translation that need constant training, even outside of the act of translation itself.

Volunteer to translate for creators who might not be able to afford a translator, or write fan translations for things you find floating around the internet. If you are going to publish fan translations on a blog or something then make sure you’re not breaking any laws or that they’re things that you don’t think would be translated otherwise. Remember not to do this at the detriment of making enough money to live on, though, and value your time! Other translators (like at Hon-Yaks) can give you a template or help you write a polite request to Japanese creators asking if you can translate their work.

The professional side of things

So what do you need to have ready when you’re applying places or reaching out to clients, agencies or employers? If you’re a freelancer, marketing yourself well is especially important. I know, ew. Here’s what you might need:

  • A resume. This might seem obvious to you Americans, but being from the UK I didn’t actually know the difference between a CV and a resume until embarrassingly recently.
  • An up-to-date CV.
  • A Japanese resume (or 履歴書). If you’re confident communicating in Japanese, this could be a potential tool to get direct Japanese clients without going through an agency or apply for jobs in Japan.
  • A portfolio. This one isn’t especially urgent, and I’ve only ever been asked for one once, but it’s handy to have around. This could be in a document or as a page on your website.
  • Your rates (usually set at USD cents per Japanese moji of the original text). It’s difficult to know what the appropriate rate to charge is since there are laws that prohibit the discussion of rates in some countries. I recommend timing yourself translating an average text and calculating what kind of rate would allow you to earn a liveable wage on the amount you translated. This rate might also differ depending on what you’re translating, such as between manga or dense technical texts.
    You might be tempted to accept really low rates at first. I can’t tell you not to, because I have too, but don’t let it be at the detriment to your standard of living or time you could be spending chasing other leads! Also keep in mind that it will be difficult to change this rate with the same client later on, so clarify if you’re doing a special rate that might change later.
  • Some knowledge of CAT tools. Actually buying the software is often expensive, but it might be worth looking into how they work in case a client can offer you the license to use it. The biggest ones I see most often used are SDL Trados and memoQ. Don’t worry about this too much, though.

Where to find jobs

I already mentioned that Twitter and general networking are the main ways I’ve gotten any work. Other than that, I recommend going to the websites of clients, publishers or agencies you want to work for and contacting them directly through their contact or careers page.

There are some online job board sites where you can find urgent translation tasks and projects that are looking for translators. They are usually highly competitive, with veterans going for the most decent jobs. Often they require you to give your rates, so make sure you ask for liveable rates. Bear in mind I have never been accepted onto a job for any of the following sites in the year I have been applying, and I recommend concentrating your best efforts elsewhere.

My own journey

I have wanted to be a translator for a long time, so I started doing it freelance in summer last year in my last year of university, which was great because I could get some experience while still living off my student loan. I’m very lucky I could start this journey with my bills already paid, because let me tell you this: it takes quite a while to achieve a stable income as a freelance Japanese-English translator.

In the beginning, it’s best that you have some other source of income or savings. Chances are you might not be getting a lot of work at the start anyway due to your lack of experience or practice. That’s why it’s best to get started sooner rather than later, and don’t be disheartened by failing tests or not getting enough work. We live in a society, in 2020! Cut yourself some slack!

Even now, after a year of translating tests and game scripts and hotel brochures and interviews and computer manuals, and after emailing dozens and dozens of applications, I’ve only really just begun to scratch the surface of being a translator. However, the work that I do get to do is so fulfilling and interesting, and I have been involved in some truly special projects. I’m sure it can only get better from here!

As for you, I wish you luck on your journey!

Shout out to the translator community on Twitter for supporting, educating and encouraging me so much. I couldn’t have written this without you!

If you have any more questions, feel free to contact me on my Contact page!


8 thoughts on “Becoming a Japanese-English translator in 2020”

  1. Great post, thank you for putting in all this effort.
    One thing that is still bothering me though, do you think people who technically aren’t native speakers (due to being born in a non-native speaking countries for example) should even bother trying? I’m a bilingual myself but my birth certificate/ last name makes me “different”, and thus I’m unsure if I should be trying or not.


    1. Of course you can be a translator even if you’re non-native or were born in a non-native speaking country! What matters is your skill. I know many J-E translators from all over the place with non-English-sounding names, many of whom are at the top of their field. Don’t let it stop you!


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