Field-specific Knowledge is a Valuable but Fairly Rare Asset in Japanese-to-English Translation
(Published February 8, 2019; last edited March 9, 2021)
Executive Summary: Most commercial Japanese-to-English translation of complex subject matter is done by translators who don’t have a proper or sufficient understanding of the texts they are translating. This can be easily seen from the backgrounds and interests of translators who populate online fora of translators.
Companies purporting to do translation do not, of course, allow their clients (translation purchasers) to learn of this sobering reality, and are themselves often incapable of judging whether a translator from whom they purchase translations understands what they are translating.
The Way Things Should be and the Way Things Actually are in the Japanese-to-English Translation Business
The received wisdom in the translation world is that, ideally, a translator should be able to read a source text with the level of understanding expected of a native reader of the source-text language and be able to render the source text in the target language with the writing skills expected of a native writer of the target language. In Japanese-to-English translation, this would mean a translator with native English writing ability translating from a Japanese text, which the translator can read and understand at the level of a native Japanese reader.
However, because Japanese is a commercial activity and because this common-sense approach is often ignored or even actively refuted, much of the Japanese-to-English translation that is sold is done by translators without the requisite language skills, located in places like China, in which almost no translators have both of the above-noted skills, as was discussed in a recently published article on third-language translators.
But native source-language reading ability and native target-language writing ability are still not sufficient to ensure a high-quality translation. The missing element is knowledge and understanding of the subject matter being translated. These three skills form the three pillars that support the activity of providing high-quality Japanese-to-English translation.
Because the interests of Japanese-capable native English speaking Japanese-to-English translators is often a poor match with the subject matter of commercially important source texts, many (perhaps most) Japanese-to-English translators are translating texts that they do not sufficiently understand, and many are clearly translating subject matter which is of no interest to them. Lack of understanding is bad enough, but a lack of interest does not encourage a translator to acquire the requisite knowledge and understanding to produce high-quality translations.
This situation can be observed by visiting fora frequented by Japanese-to-English translators. Some of the questions asked of colleagues clearly indicate that many translators are attempting unsuccessfully to punch over their weight by accepting jobs that they are incapable of doing. How did things get this way?
Japanese Language Learners
Many native English speakers who learn Japanese come to Japanese language learning with an interest in subjects that are not very important in commercial translation, some examples being:
- Literature (e.g., translation of novels)
- Martial arts
- Japanese art
- Japanese history
- Japanese culture
In contrast, the subject matter fields that are important in commercial Japanese-to-English are things such as:
Having embarked on a formal education in Japanese language because of an attraction to, for example, Japanese culture and art, some would-be (and actually will-be) translators are probably surprised and dismayed to discover that the demand for translation of the Japanese cultural things in which they are interested is very low compared to translation of things such as finance, engineering, and pharmaceuticals, regarding which many have no particular interest
I have heard a well-meaning veteran Japanese-to-English translator counsel beginning translators to strive to be the best they can be at translating texts the field that interests them—even if it is a very narrow field—and to aim at being successful in their narrow niche. Although such suggestions are surely made out of kindness and a desire not to have a would-be translator give up when encountering roadblocks on the path to becoming a commercial translator, an objective consideration of the nature and size of the translation market relative to the demographics of Japanese culture-loving beginners makes it clear that the advice is not necessarily the best. On the contrary, such advice will likely lead to crushing failures for many beginners not ready to face the challenges of learning commercially important subject matter. But the other side of that coin is that, if such translators plod on into commercial translation, many will be burdened throughout their careers with translating texts they have no interest in and ones that they cannot fully understand.
If they cannot be with the one they love, some translators at least pretend to love the one they’re with.
Some translators rationalize that, even though they would rather translate Japanese literature or cultural texts they really enjoy translating things such as patents, pharmaceuticals, and endless threads of emails for patent litigation. Perhaps some are telling the truth. I think that it is perhaps not many, however.
What does this mean if you need translations of complex Japanese texts?
Almost none of the larger translation providers—the ones claiming a blinding variety of capabilities and the ones to which you might regularly give your Japanese documents to translate—can provide you any assurance that your Japanese texts are being translated by a specific translator who understands the subject-matter of the texts you send them to translate. This situation is dictated by the demographics, as noted above, in what some characterize as the translation “industry."
As discussed elsewhere, almost no translation company of any significant size has any translators. What is worse, even when they are not sending your Japanese documents to China to be translated into English, they are generally giving your documents to translators who very likely don’t fully understand the subject matter of the documents. Faced with the task of translating a Japanese patent for a power grid control system, a Japanese-to-English translator who spent their university days immersed in Japanese literature and culture is highly unlikely to produce a translation such as possible by a translator with an engineering background in addition to the required language skills. Moreover, our experience is that Japanese-to-English translators without field-specific knowledge in commercially important fields are much more common than those with such knowledge.
The best advice that can be given—to avoid having your integrated circuit manufacturing method patent or your pharmaceutical document translated by a person more interested and knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism than in those fields—is to deal with a translation provider that actually has translators in their employ or even one operated by a translator. Although the number of suitable players is limited, searching around can lead to good relationships with people who can do more than just toss your documents to translators of unproven ability and knowledge and merely hope that they succeed.