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[Published July 31, 2017]
Countless times I have heard translators say things like "I hope to get work like that someday." The reality is that almost none of these translators will ever get "work like that," and hoping won't change that reality. The people who have those hopes usually don't have a clue as to what they would need to do to get what they want. Nor are many of them even aware of how slim their chances are of getting "work like that." For almost all translators, the outlook is dismal at best.
For the sake of this discussion, I will define "work like that" as follows. These characteristics happen to apply to the work I do, and I have often discussed these characteristics with colleagues in both open and private fora. To each, I have applied a percentage of translators in my market (JA-to-EN translation) that I think achieve these characteristics.
Although the percentages are somewhat subjective judgments, my decades of experience in translation and in interacting with and observing JA-to-EN translators gives me a high level of confidence in these estimates. For translators wedded to the idea of working for agencies, let me be very clear about rates. I would be very surprised to hear that there were many translators receiving 0.30 USD/word from agencies for JA-to-EN translation. It might happen, but would be exceptional. Thus, getting 0.30 USD/word almost always means dealing with direct clients.
Limiting my examples to people working in Japanese-to-English commercial (i.e., not literary) translation, I would say that no more than 2% to 3% of translators ever achieve all the above. You can hope all you want, and, if you do the right things (including make the right decisions), have ability, and are somewhat lucky, you might get "work like that." but you will be a part of a very tiny portion of the translator population.
Upon hearing the above definitions, I am sure that some of my colleagues are going to say that they are doing just such type of work already. Yes, they probably are; I hang out with some awesome translators. But they would be wrong to think that they are not the rare exceptions. The overwhelming majority of JA-to-EN translators never get out of the low-paid, bulk translation market, and are working away, perhaps in quiet resignation to their station in translation life.
Very few JA-to-EN translators ever meet a potential direct client and even fewer will ever get to work for direct clients. Almost all work for agencies and are paid much lower than the reasonably high 0.30 USD/word rate cited above, and many face the specter of late payment or non-payment because they are working for entities that have no reputation to lose if they treat their translation providers poorly.
I am currently looking up (surreptitiously, of course) specific translators I knew from the early days of the Japan Association of Translators and those I have met since those days. The targets of my checking around include some people with whom I continue to interact. From around 1985, I have observed numerous translators who ostensibly had the potential to be movers and shakers in our business. Almost to a man (and woman), they have fallen far short of the mark (if the mark is as noted by the characteristics I listed above). Many of them are skulking around on reverse auctions such as Proz or Translatorcafe, competing with translators in places like China and India for low-paying bulk JA-to-EN work. Among these translators are those who rightfully boast of formal education in language and translation. And surely some of them are good translators. But being a good translator does not equate to getting "work like that."
A significant number of translators have left translation but, perhaps to be able to remain in Japan, have started doing things such as teaching English or rewriting (many of them calling it editing) JA-to-EN translations done by non-native English-speaking translators. A few have become "intercultural consultants." Some of the above have gone back to their home countries, thereby making their already-slim chances of acquiring direct clients in Japan even slimmer.
Why is it so rare to acquire high-paying direct clients? The reasons are diverse, but most translators who are hoping to break out of the bulk market don’t seem to know the reasons why they are even in the bulk market to start with. Fewer still realize that they will never move up and out. It is easy to tell someone who is failing by doing the same thing over and over to simply do something else. Many people, however, don’t have a "something else" or have made decisions that preclude doing "something else."
In my market, on average, the highest-paid JA-to-EN work by far is in Japan, working for direct translation consumers. This is writer-driven work, which is radically different from reader-driven work. The geographic and rate differences between these two market segments is something that evidently escapes many translators.
Writer-driven translation is required by the creator of a message who has a stake in how the message is expressed. This is not limited to marketing materials or user manuals. The patent translations I do are also writer-driven translations. The inventor's employer needs to convince a patent examiner that their invention is worthy of a patent. It's essentially a selling job.
In contrast, reader-driven translation work is ordered by entities who "just want to know what something written in Japanese says." It is typically very low-paid compared with writer-driven translation, and is typically ordered by translation brokers on behalf entities outside of Japan. For JA-to-EN translators working in the US, the accessible market is dominated by translation brokers purchasing and reselling reader-driven translation work, often in the form of huge volumes of discovery documents for litigation in US courts.
A translator continuing to work in the bulk market for reader-driven JA-to-EN translation is simply not suddenly someday going to be approached by a direct client because their translations of those internal emails used in some patent litigation were so good. It just is not going to happen. Well, you might ask, how do you get direct clients if you have decided to live in the US? I have met JA-to-EN translators based in the US who have direct clients in Japan. But they acquired them by having lived in Japan, and some of them continue to make periodic visits to clients in Japan. I cannot think of any who have acquired such Japanese clients while living exclusively in the US.
If getting Japanese clients is so difficult, why not go after direct clients based in the US? Fine. How do you do that? I have not a clue, nor do I know many translators who would have a clue as to how to go about selling to direct clients in the US. I think it is difficult, and it might be more difficult than even I can imagine, and I'm usually pretty good at imagining difficulties.
That said, I do translation for some US law firms, but it is mainly because I met their attorneys in person on interpreting assignments. Very few translators have such opportunities. And most of the translations I have seen used by attorneys over the last decade or so have been done by a few of the well-known translation brokers that actively sell to US law firms. Some are horrible, but I suspect that it would still be quite difficult to drag the paralegals who order such translations away from their translation brokers. And the brokers having the translations done in Chindia for very low rates makes competing for that work very difficult.
If you wish to acquire Japanese clients here in Japan, you are going to need to live in Japan and be able to sell in Japanese. The spoken Japanese of most (I would say 95%) of the non-Japanese JA-to-EN translators I have met is far from being at a level that would enable them to sell effectively in Japanese to Japanese clients. For them, the "doing something else" of selling to Japanese clients is beyond their reach when the things they have been persistently doing continue to fail.
There is nothing that is going to change this situation. As wonderful as it might be to be able to tell beginning translators that they can make it to the top if they just try harder or do something special, for all but the very exceptional few, that would just be setting them up for a painful fall. The results of such painful falls can be seen all around us. Some of the results are not that obvious, because the people who are lurking at the bottom of the food chain are not that vocal. But it is clear to me that most will never make it to the level they might have hoped for. They can keep hoping, but it is most likely in vain.