Field-specific KnowledgeAn essential element in Japanese-to-English translation

(February 8, 2019)

Many translators doing commercial Japanese-to-English translation of complex subject matter came to Japanese translation with little field-specific knowledge in the subject matters they must translate. The result is spotty quality and the need for translation consumers to exercise care in ordering translations.

Field-specific knowledge and expertise is a rare commodity among commercial translators, many of whom work through agencies that tout the expertise of "their" translators (more precisely, the translators from whom they purchase translations) but provide no specifics to back up the claim.

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-language text with the level of understanding expected of the intended 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 writer native to 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.

But just 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 skills form the three pillars essential to supporting the activity of providing high-quality Japanese-to-English translation.

Because the interests and knowledge of Japanese-capable native English-speaking Japanese-to-English translators are often poor matches 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 online 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. But, of course, translation consumers will not be sitting on the sidelines watching the ensuing tragicomic exchanges. 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), Buddhism, martial arts, Japanese fine arts, Japanese history, and other aspects of Japanese culture.

More recently, people have come to learn Japanese because of their interest in manga, anime, and games and, while there is some demand for Japanese-to-English translation of the related content, many of these translators are ill-equipped to handle translations of complex subject matter in most commercial translation.

In contrast, the subject matter fields that are important in commercial Japanese-to-English are things such as finance, medicine, engineering, pharmaceuticals, software, and patents.

Having embarked on and invested in a formal education in the Japanese language because of an attraction to, for example, Japanese culture and art, some would-be (and actually will-be and currently are) 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 or knowledge.

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 that they cannot fully understand.

If translators cannot be with the subject matter they love, some translators at least pretend to love the subject matter they're with.

Even though they would rather translate Japanese literature or cultural texts, some translators rationalize that they really do enjoy translating things such as patents, pharmaceuticals, and endless threads of emails and boring internal documents for US patent litigation. Perhaps some are telling the truth. I think that the “some” is not that many.

What does this mean if you need translations of complex Japanese texts?

Almost none of the larger translation brokers—the ones claiming a blinding variety of capabilities and the ones from which you might regularly be ordering translation—can provide you any verifiable assurance that your Japanese texts are being translated by a specific translator who understands the subject-matter of the texts you send the broker to translate. This situation is dictated by the translator demographics, as noted above, and by the need for the agencies to hide the identity of their translators, in full recognition that the agency itself is not that essential a link in the translation process.

As discussed elsewhere, almost no translation company of any significant size actually "has" any translators. What is worse, even when they are not sending your Japanese documents to China to be translated into English, they are often giving your documents to translators who very likely don't fully understand the subject matter. 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 and thereafter 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. There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are not that common. Our experience is that Japanese-to-English translators without field-specific knowledge in commercially important fields are much more numerous than those with such knowledge.


The best advice to avoid having your semiconductor device manufacturing method patent or your pharmaceutical document translated by a person more interested and knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism or anime than about those fields—is to deal with a translation provider that actually has translators in their employ or even one operated by a translator. Although that limits the number of suitable players, 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 hope that they succeed.