Survival:Some Dos and Don't Bothers in the Post MTPE World of Japanese-to-English TranslationInherited wisdom has gone stale.

William Lise (October 30, 2023)

With drastic changes underway in Japanese-to-English translation, centered on agencies quickly shifting to ordering only post-editing of MT output, translators hoping to survive by translating must discard the traditionally accepted and recommended behaviors of:

  • Creating and giving to potential clients anything that resembles a resume;
  • “Registering” with agencies; and
  • Creating profiles on reverse-auction platforms such as ProZ

The Reasons for Avoiding These Approaches


Resumes are not going to help you get direct clients that are going to be able to provide translation work for perhaps a few more years. People who sell successfully don’t show a resume to potential direct clients. You’re not looking for a job; you’re selling a service and should act accordingly.

"Registering" with Agencies

At this point in the evolution of the market, registering with agencies is like boarding a sinking ship or, at best, one that doesn't want you as a first-class passenger. Translation work from agencies will shortly be at a level that can support only a tiny fraction of translators looking for translation work. It's on its way to that already. And the entire "registration" phenomenon has long been a method for agencies to collect email addresses of translators. Many "registered" translators find that they don't get much, if any, work from those agencies, but are proud members of an agency's “team” of N translators, where N is an outrageously misleading integer.

Reverse-Auction Platforms

The futility of reverse-auction platforms should be obvious, particularly to capable native English-speaking Japanse-to-English translators, because it places them in a space shared with numerous translator wannabes and, worse, third-language Japanese-to-English translators who have neither English nor Japanese as their native language. And the clients that might look for work in such translator meat markets are not the ones that could extend your translating life for a few more years.

More Effective Approaches

There are more-effective strategies that can be applied by a subset of translators wanting to survive doing translation. They will not future-proof your career, but they might at least work for a while.

Specialization is a Given

  • Acquire field-specific knowledge to a level that would enable you to have subject-specific discussions directly with a non-agency client working in that field, because those are the clients that could extend your translating career a few years, and they, unlike agencies, will be able to quickly assess whether you have what it takes in terms of familiarity with their subject matter.

Many translators don't have sufficient field-specific knowledge to bring to the client as an advantage of using them. Having a life before translation is very helpful, but the vast majority of translators cannot go back to "before translation."

Spoken Japanese

  • Acquire a sales-ready level of spoken Japanese.

If you are in Japan and cannot acquire non-Japanese direct clients, acquire spoken Japanese to a level that would enable you to discuss a client's subject matter with the client in Japanese, without alarming the client regarding your abilities. And be aware that many Japanese clients are highly alarmable by poor spoken Japanese, although many Japanese translating English-to-Japanese are not that good at spoken English. Is that situation unfair? Perhaps. Can you change it? No.

Most NES translators don't have a sales-ready level of spoken Japanese. And, faced with the impeding collapse of translation work from agencies, very few native-English speaking translators have the time to acquire that spoken Japanese ability. Those who have been in Japan for decades and haven't acquired it already are highly unlikely to make it. Maintain a healthy doubt about your abilities in this area. The Dunning-Kruger effect is not your friend.

Useful, but Painful Realities

There you have it. It's not a happy or hopeful situation for most translators, but I think recognizing the stark realities is better than chasing attractive fantasies.