Some Thoughts on Japanese Reading and Comprehension

Just how well do you need to read Japanese to be a JA-to-EN translator? I have heard this question from beginners, and thought I would make a few comments, which could perhaps be of some interest even to experienced translators. Naturally, I am directing my comments to NES (native English speaker) translators, the group that has the highest potential of achieving professional-level translation ability in JA-to-EN translation.

Starting Out

Many translators, and particularly the vast majority of translators working in the bulk market, are fortunate in that most translation situations allow them to hide from their clients, translating in the seclusion of their workplace, without the danger of being discovered scampering through a pile of dictionaries or running to the Internet, in utter confusion and distress. This fortunate situation is made possible in most cases by the intervention of an agency in the translation business food chain. Yes, the very same agencies that are decried as an evil in the translation world. The presence of the agency saves the translator from embarrassment and saves the client from worrying about whether the translator is really up to the job. Unfortunately, in addition to greatly lowering the income-earning potential of translators, it essentially prevents interaction between the translator and the only entity who can help the translation process–the translation consumer or author.

For the beginning translator, therefore, the answer to my original question is often “not that good at all,” if the definition of success at translation is the receipt of repeated jobs. The tolerance for plodding along at a slow pace, with heavy reliance on dictionary work and other time-consuming research, is governed in this sector of the market by tolerance on the part of the translator for low income. The question of quality remains, however, and my experience tells me that a translation done with lots of dictionary work and research at a very low speed is more likely to have serious problems than one done at a more commercially practical speed by someone capable of working essentially free of the dictionary lookup process.

Breaking Out and Away From Dictionaries

While translators are often assumed to work surrounded by piles of dictionaries and with heavy online lookup work, some beginners might be surprised to discover how little dictionary work accomplished professionals do during an average workday. Once you get to a level at which J-E translation is no longer painful, you will not that often be using dictionaries to look up Japanese words and characters. One key to this is working in your field of specialization, which will be the topic of another article.

But for the non-Japanese translator from Japanese, just what metrics would be useful indicators of whether you have achieved a level that enables a breakaway from dictionaries and a breakout from the bulk market? I would like to propose the following as a set of things that a seasoned translator might want to have as Japanese capabilities and that beginning translators should aim for. Some of these sound irrelevant, but are included for the specific reasons cited.

  • Read aloud an article from a Japanese newspaper, without faltering. This is a measure of your general comprehension. We often hear comments such as “I know what it means, but I can’t remember the reading.” I submit that many times these comments are not supported by fact and are merely demonstrations of a lack of reading comprehension. Such comments appear to more commonly come from JA-to-EN translators living outside Japan or living in Japan but with limited active use of Japanese outside of translation work.
  • Work through a typical translation text with no more than one dictionary lookup per 1000 characters. Why, you might ask, is such a level of independence from dictionaries required? It is not, I suppose, if you are not interested in achieving a healthy income, regardless of whether you work with direct clients or agencies. But there are other reasons; read on, please.
  • Discuss a job with a Japanese client over the phone, including reading off passages from their manuscript. Perhaps the above two items come into more focus now? There are not that many direct Japanese clients who are comfortable giving translation work to a non-Japanese who would falter in reading a manuscript aloud. This again points up one of the values of an intervening agency, which shields the translator (and the client) from such distressing situations.
  • Develop Japanese as an active tool for communication on a day-to-day basis. For those living outside Japan, this might be difficult, and to some translators this might seem unnecessary, regardless of where they live. Think again, however, of the times you have been stumped by elements in a manuscript simply because they are not things that you would use, for no other reason than that you simply don’t use Japanese to communicate. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent with slang expressions, expressions needing cultural context, and (last but not least) sloppily handwritten documents, which sometimes can be saved only if the translator can figure out what could have been written in a particular situation. Other problems involve field-specific jargon and abbreviations.

Are these comments starting to come into better focus?

Having Japanese language as an active and usable tool is not a matter of showing off how well you have learned the language, but rather a matter of developing the ability to rise to (or fall to?) the level of the manuscript because it is written in an idiom and context with which you have an active capability.

How Do You Get There?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are translators or prospective translators.

Receiving a formal education in Japanese can be helpful but is seldom sufficient to reach the level of ability that I have cited above. We probably all know people with advanced degrees in Japanese who could perform few of the feats I cited. Here are a few suggestions on getting there, hopefully without that much pain on the way.

Get a Japanese Life. That’s neither an insult nor a typo. If you have any interests outside of translation, language learning and Japanese culture, why not pursue those interests through the medium of Japanese? This is a bit difficult outside of Japan, I must admit, but for people who have the chance to interact with Japanese, I strongly recommend this approach. Are you interested in cycling, art, music, or whatever? Find Japanese people with the same interests, join their groups, and interact, preferably in person. Some good stuff might rub off.

Use Japanese With Your Japanese Clients. Admittedly this can be difficult at the beginning, and is often virtually impossible in many cases if you have started out the relationship using English. However, any translator with aspirations of breaking out of the agency-served bulk market and acquiring direct clients in Japan is usually going to have to get past this hurdle.

Acquire an Informant With the Correct Work Context and Experience. Fairly early (about 40 years ago) in my exposure to Japanese, I was thrown into a situation in which I needed to sell products (my US company’s) in Japanese. Luckily I had a Japanese salesman working for me who I could use as a model for “sales Japanese.” He had years of experience selling, making him a good model to copy. You might not get so lucky, but it might pay to try to interact with someone who can provide a role model in speaking sales-ready Japanese, which is absolutely necessary in dealing with clients in Japanese. What you learned in school will not suffice.

Read Japanese Other Than the Manuscripts You Translate. As unbelievable as it might seem, there are translators who do no reading of Japanese unless they are translating. Reading outside of your manuscripts, either in your field or outside your field of specialty can give you the depth and breadth of experience necessary to pull you out of tight spots. I highly recommend it.

Almost all translators have a life outside of translation, and reading about those non-translation interests is a good way to improve your command of real Japanese, while acquiring information about a subject in which you are really interested.

For example, one of my interests is the Imperial Japanese Navy (and its reincarnation as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force). Another is collecting slide rules (no laughter, please). I read about both topics in Japanese. I read books in Japanese that are about other things as well, and hardly ever travel on a train or plane without something to read in Japanese.

Is Thoroughly Understanding the Source Text Enough?

This is, of course, a rhetorical question. Target-language writing ability and subject-matter knowledge are also essential, and will be topics of discussion in the near future.

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