Becoming a Japanese Translator

Is it safe to say that if I learn the 2000 common kanji, I can do my job as a translator or do I need to learn more?

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Although professional translators probably know a lot more than the 2000, let me point out that a translator can always consult a dictionary, and that memorizing thousands of kanji is neither the most difficult nor the most important skill a translator must have.


thank you rodrigowaick

If you want to be a translator, the difficult part is not learning the kanji. You might need a bit more than the standard 2200 ones, but the exact number is irrelevant, because what really matters is being near-native in Japanese, and knowing the kanji is only a small step.

What’s your main language? If it’s different from English, then you might be able to work as a translator from Japanese to your language, but it really depends on the request in your country.

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In no language knowing thousands of words makes anyone a good translator. It might make you a person who knows a lot of words. But being able to accurately render a text from the source into the target language is just so much more.


There is a very interesting article on the tofugu website named ‘ultimate guide to becoming a Japanese translator’ or this one from about being a video game translator.

While learning the 2000 most common kanji is important, you would need quite a good grasp of grammar and vocab. So if anything, it’s the bare minimum. On a side note, I don’t really know about Japanese, but I’ve heard from my university and people working in that field that being a (freelance) professional translator (at least here in Europe) is a very competitive field, even for languages like Gaelic or Irish. You need to be really proficient in both, source and target language to succeed as a translator.

Exactly. It takes quite a lot of effort to make a good translation. You can be fluent in two different languages and still struggle or even fail to make an proper translation.


Sound like “can I become a race car driver once I know what all the flags mean?”


Can I become a pro gamer after I learn what all the combos do?


Okay, so basically the 2000 kanji are a bare minimum, on top of that I need vocab, which I knew and mastery of the grammar. And the job would still be difficult?

Even if you have all of that, you have to start the study of translation itself. It’s a separate thing from language proficiency.

Lots of people call themselves translators and post free versions of things like manga and anime, but this is just people doing a hobby or studying. You really should get actual training if you want to do it as a job.


If your other language is English, then basically you will compete with thousands of Japanese native speakers who learned English to an university level in Japan, and have a much easier time to get into the Japanese market.

If you have another language then the question is if there is enough demand. One good job as a translator in Japan would be to translate official documents for the embassy, but you need an official certification, expertise, and experience.

If your plan is to learn Japanese to be a translator, I would say you should see it as a full Bachelor/Master university course with lots of on-the-job experience required, while having slim chances afterwards because native Japanese translators will out-compete you.


Would you really be competing in the same field? Generally speaking people translate into their native language. So the native Japanese people would be translating English into Japanese, something very few native English speakers could ever hope to be qualified for.

I get that a company could cut corners and have non-natives do the translation from Japanese to English, but it would be easy to outperform them.


I think there are several levels, but as a dream job of translator only the last would qualify.

  1. Japanese firm want to have something in English occasionally (“we need our menu in English”) For the usual quality I usually see you can do that if you can outperform Google Translate or the one guy in the office who paid attention in high school English classes. But I don’t think think there are positions for that to be hired, it’s just some occasional work.
  2. Translator for documents, like Japanese presentation to English. My previous company had that, she was Japanese with some years abroad. I think there were lots of applications, and Japanese companies will stick with hiring Japanese people, even if the translations are dodgy (not in my case). [Edit: she was doing “Office Lady” stuff most of the time, anyway ;-)]
  3. Translation for a product. If you translate a book or a manual you need a highly specialized translator. There are probably only a few, but there are also not that many jobs.

I guess you are aiming at number 2., but for English Japanese companies are fine with cutting corners using Japanese people, I have seen highly qualified people doing three-month job-hopping. Translation is not so integral for most companies. You could be lucky of course, but I would rather be lucky with better odds from the start :slight_smile:

(This is just my impression, if some actual translator would show up and say it’s nonsense I would accept that.)


I don’t see why being a freelance translator couldn’t be someone’s dream job. Doing a job where I am using Japanese every day would be pretty cool, and I would certainly enjoy that.

But the companies that need translation from Japanese to English are certainly not limited to Japanese companies. My mom works for a pharmaceutical company that is expanding to Japan. The translators there make big bucks, but they need special certifications. Generally speaking they’re translating communications from the Japanese regulators, government agencies, etc.


Sure enough, but I wonder if you can make the money that you would deserve for your investment. It takes huge effort, but in the end you will always be on the lookout for a new job. There was some discussion in the forums about a freelance translation platform, I think the tenor was that the payment was ridiculous, but many highly qualified people do it anyway for fun or CV experience, eroding the prices for the “true professionals” as well.

For that kind of thing you need the gods of translation, it would truly be catastrophic if they got the regulations wrong. I don’t doubt that there are really high-end jobs, but I’m sure they are looking at 25+ years of experience as well. The problem is that for good jobs the number is low and you have to be a true master, compared to “I’m a programmer” where are there lots of positions even for entry level people.


Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. But maybe I am just less wary of the idea of short contracts and always looking for work, because my dad worked for a long time as a technical writer, and that was his normal.

But I guess my main point is that many, many companies do business in Japan even if they have nothing to do with Japan on the outside, and those companies do need translations for those kinds of documents. As you said, they’re of higher importance than things like presentations or internal memos. I think it’s more common that people work for a translation company that gets hired on an “as needed” basis for that kind of thing, but in the case of really big companies it could be internal.


This is not even enough to make you proficient, much less a translator. Beyond the things you mentioned, mastering a language includes learning nuance, levels of politeness, collocations, idioms, slang and so on, not to mention extensive practice in reading, writing, listening and speaking. This takes years, even for languages easier than Japanese.

Translating, as Leebo said, is a field of study in itself, which you would need to learn in addition to Japanese.

I started learning English almost 20 years ago, and, through years of schooling, extensive reading of novels, news, video games and everything on the internet, watching hundreds of movies and series, living in an English-speaking country and getting my Masters degree in English, I have reached a point in which I have a larger vocabulary and can write better than many (less educated) native speakers, and that still doesn’t mean I’m qualified to be a translator. And I won’t ever be, unless I deliberately study translation. Sure, I can take any text in English, translate it to Portuguese (and vice-versa), and end up with something that makes sense, but I’m definitely not qualified to do it professionally.

When a literary work is translated, the translator’s choice of words can completely change the style, the tone and the beauty of the original work, to the point that a bad translation can completely ruin a good book. In fact, some books are even said to be untranslatable (such as Joyce’s Ulysses), so you can appreciate the difficulty of the task. That’s not mentioning the damage one could do by ineptly translating things like business presentations, contracts, manuals, medical papers and such.


There’s something else that’s worth mentioning here. Even if you like learning languages like I do it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll enjoy translating. I used to think I wanted to be a Spanish to English translator until I got into it translating documents for a company in Madrid. It’s actually really boring and involves cross-checking a few different dictionaries and making sure you’ve got every nuance perfect. It has to be PERFECT because people will be making important decisions based on what you’ve written.

Having to translate a novel is another level because you have to convey the style and symbolism and even cultural connotations. People here have mentioned that translating is a separate skill, to elaborate on this sometimes when conversing in Spanish I will understand something that someone’s said but I don’t know how exactly I’d put it in English. Every language has words that are unique to that language. Each language is essentially its own world.

If you really have a dream to be a translator then go for it but it requires a lot of conscientiousness that I found really dull. If you like that dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s kind of thing then you’ll love it. Enjoying the content that you’re working on would help too but in such a competitive environment, beggars can’t be choosers.


Try watching an anime series with the English dub with Englsh subtitles for the Japanese on. Watch as the subtitles and vocals don’t match. Add in fan subtitles for the Japanese made before the series was licensed. You’ll find yet another divide. Japanese and English are very different beasts linguistically for a great number of reasons other than the letter-based nature of English and character-based nature of Japanese.

As someone who has worked hard on my hobby of translating light novels to English for over seven years, I can easily state that being able to recognize 2000 kanji would likely get you less than 30% of what you need to be able to translate, and will do even less should you attempt to find a career translating outside of freelance work. Even then, your slow speed will be you won’t get enough money to live off of it, meaning you’ll lose even more time attempting to maintain a job at the same time.

Grammar is significantly more important than kanji will ever be because you can simply look up kanji and find their meanings. Just like in any other language, the Japanese use a great deal of figurative techniques in writing, especially fiction, which will skirt around or confuse someone who has simply learned the primary and/or most literal meanings of kanji. Often times the context and structuring of sentences will provide one the hints to know that some sentences are plays on words or completely figurative.

If you plan to translate non-fiction works, you’re much likely closer to your goal than if you want to translate fiction. Especially in the fantasy genre, many Japanese works utilize archaic kanji and artificial jukugo (combining two kanji together to make a word that doesn’t actually exist) to enhance the mood of the story, something that is very different from English. While sometimes artificial readings are simply to add a “fiction” feel or hint that characters are in a country speaking a different language from Japanese, other times they are indicators that the meaning you’d usually use doesn’t fit.

TL:DR: No. With basic knowledge of 2000 common kanji, depending on your grammar, you may be able to slowly generate crude translations that get across enough for a reader to understand, but it is highly doubtful you will be able to find a job doing it. Advanced training on grammar, etymology, and large amounts of experience conversing in Japanese are necessary to produce translations that will convince natives and allow you to function at a speed at which you can actually work.


As let’s call it “trained translator”, I can vouch for the face that while it is not an easy job (in the sense of getting into it and earning your living), it is still possible, of course. The market is quite horrible with lots of companies looking just for the cheapest service and getting crap in return, but especially if one can show expertise in a certain field, it is possible to get steady flow of income. But as a freelancer in general you fave a lot of pros and cons.

Anyhow, studying translation is a good thing but not absolutely necessary. What is necessary: first of all, mastering your own language so you can translate into it - not that obvious and basically a talent one has or not. Secondly, mastering the other language so that you get the various hues and meanings that the source text has. So much more than knowing 2000 kanji.