One Japanese-to-English Translator's Journey into the World of Translation

by William Lise

(Published April 29, 2022; edited July 16, 2022)

Executive Summary People follow diverse paths in becoming translators, and many translators follow paths that they never expected would lead them into a career in translation. Here is just the story of one translator who for years was unwittingly doing things to prepare himself to be a translator. Nothing was planned, nor could it have been.

I am sometimes asked how one becomes a translator. Sometimes the question is from a non-translator, usually someone who has never met a translator. Even I never met a translator until quite some time after becoming one myself, and so I can hardly blame people for wondering about the whys and the hows of becoming a translator. I had nobody to answer those questions for me.

I also sometimes hear the question from people learning Japanese in various situations and environments and from people I meet through work.

Seldom do I hear the question, however, from clients. Perhaps some think that, just as with other professions, there is some formulaic path that you travel and, at the end of the journey, you are a translator. It is certainly not that formulaic and often not such an easy trip.

Here is a short version of my particular story. It is certainly not typical, and I am not sure there is any "typical" path to becoming a translator. Nor do I think that others should strive to—or could—follow the same path; there are just too many uncontrollable variables in our lives to expect that to work. As such, this account of my journey into translation is best understood as just one way one person made the journey.


My initial encounters with foreign languages were in high school and university, with German and French, respectively, in the 1960s. I had top grades in both languages, but retain embarrassingly little knowledge of either language and am totally incapable of conversing in either.

Russian Language at Defense Language Institute in Monterey

My next language was Russian, which I had chosen as one of the languages I wished to learn. What we were not told is that we were shortly to be in training to prepare us to be intercept operators spying on Soviet military communications while riding in planes, on surface vessels, and on other intelligence-gathering platforms for the US Navy. The USN gave us few details of our future assignments until shortly before we headed to our first duty station. Until then, our job was simply to become proficient at Russian.

I graduated very high in my Russian class at Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and considered myself to be a hot-shot intercept operator. I was, in fact, a hot-shot intercept operator. But I retain little spoken Russian. When you don't actively use a language acquired as an adult, you tend to lose it quite quickly.

We received more than 1500 hours of classroom instruction in Russian at DLI, provided by an interesting cohort of teachers who had defected from the Soviet Union at various times. There were a few from the immediate post-revolutionary period, some from WW2, and numerous Cold War era defectors. Our classroom work was augmented by an hour or so each night listening to tapes on our reel-to-reel recorders, and standing in the chow line in the morning mumbling our Russian dialog scripts, either to ourselves or with a classmate. It was rather bizarre hearing people do this in nearly a dozen languages before and even at breakfast. Nobody resented having to study; there was the promise of not having to perform "normal" military duties after getting out of language school. That was a promise that to an extent was kept.

Another inducement to learning was living in the B-5 Russian barracks, where conversation in only Russian was permitted. Once at my duty station in Japan, however, my job did not require the use of spoken Russian.

Off to See the World and Several Seas: My First "Japan" Experience (1967)

I have never sat in a Japanese language classroom or participated in any formal Japanese-language learning program; I am a total autodidact. While numerous "spook" colleagues spent hours at night drinking in bars in Yokohama's Chinatown that catered to foreigners , I and several similarly minded Russian-language spooks shunned that pastime, choosing instead to spend time in what were arguably—and turned out to be—more uplifting adventures.

We would often take what we called 200-yen train tours. We would buy a 200-yen train ticket and get off at some station that the fare would take us to. Train fares being what they were then (the minimum fare being 20 yen on some lines), that easily enabled us to avoid encounters with the English-speaking locals closer to our base and provided a good trial-by-fire of our ability to communicate in Japanese. To this day even highly educated Japanese are not noted for their ability at conversational English; in the 1960s, there were even fewer Japanese capable of—or wanting to—converse with foreigners in English. I combined those trips with hours of self-study of the written language.

That self-study effort to learn the written language was helped along by a cruise to the Indian Ocean on a destroyer escort to follow around a Soviet missile tracking ship. I brought as many beginning Japanese textbooks as I could find and also a few weekly magazines with me onto the ship. Since my mission was radio intercept and the Russians were unsurprisingly not very talkative late at night, I made good use of my midnight-to-8am watches (and most of my other free time) to learn to read and write Japanese.

That cruise took us to, among other places, Malaysia, Diego Garcia (in the middle of the Indian Ocean), Mauritius, and Mozambique. On the way back, we stopped at Perth, Adelaide, and Pago Pago. After returning to Japan, I continued my self-study and my studious avoidance of English-speaking locals.

After my discharge, having been made to swear in writing that I would not visit a Soviet-bloc country for ten years and having been ceremoniously given a telephone number to call if I was approached by any suspicious persons, I embarked on my post-spook life. Many of us received recruiting letters from the NSA shortly after being discharged, but I had no interest in working in what I suspected would have been a very stifling environment.

Back in the USA: Life after Spookdom (1970)

I finished my BS degree in electrical engineering at Drexel in Philadelphia at night, while working for nearly five years at the Engineering Research Center of what was then Western Electric, located in Princeton, New Jersey. WE no longer exists, having been forced by the government to split into a number of separate companies because its parent company controlled too much of the telephone infrastructure. Oldsters might remember that Western Electric, in addition to making telephone equipment, provided the audio technology for many movies in the past.

I did nothing at the research center related to language. After a short period at a related millimeter waveguide pilot plant in Hopewell, I was transferred to a fiber optics laboratory at the main research center in Princeton. Optical fiber was destined to—and did—replace copper cable in telephone transmission systems. I was doing things like pulling thin optical fiber from molten silica preforms and making various tests and measurements of the resulting fiber, such as measuring the fiber's transmission loss and the periodicity of the variations in the fiber diameter, which caused undesirable mode conversion in single-mode fiber. But I digress.

Are you waiting for me to get to my entrance into translation? Bear with me; there is bit more before that.

One day when I was in the lab pulling my fiber, so to speak, I noticed an electronics industry newspaper want ad looking for an electrical engineer who speaks, reads, and writes Japanese and would be willing and able to transfer to Japan. I said to myself "I'm their man!" and immediately phoned the company, a major manufacturer of electronic test and measuring instruments. I was a bit dismayed when they put a native Japanese speaker on the phone with me to check to see if my claims of Japanese capability were valid. I evidently passed muster, because they told me to fly to Seattle to meet them. I was finally to have a position in which Japanese language was not only useful, but actually essential.

Adventure in Corporate America: Not that much fun while it lasted (1975-)

After arriving in the Pacific Northwest, I learned that there were very few applicants who filled the job requirements. Some were American engineers who said they spoke Japanese but turned out to have been exaggerating their language capabilities. Others were fluent in Japanese (because they were native Japanese speakers) but were not hired, is suspect because the company did not want a Japanese person to represent them in Japan.

In any event, I spent a few months at the headquarters in the Seattle area, after which I moved to Yokohama, where I headed a crew of about ten people. In the process, we fired our Japanese trading company, then called Toyo Trading (the current TOYO Corporation) and engaged a division of Tokyo Electron as our new partner, with my branch performing servicing of all our products and doing direct sales of our high-end products.

I spent several years managing the branch, which provided me valuable opportunities to acquire sales-ready spoken Japanese. Since we were short-handed, I would sometimes need to go out and meet clients by myself. Before I ventured out on these missions, however, I spent as much time as possible pairing with my Japanese sales people, one of whom I had poached from our former trading company, and another who previously worked for what would become Advantest (it was Takeda Riken at the time). I stole everything I could from these guys regarding language and behavior in front of customers.

My translation duties were very limited; basically just occasionally providing information to the home office on competing products and companies. At this point, I still did not have an inkling that I would shortly become a career translator.

Bold (?) Migration to the Brave New World of Translation (Late 1978-)

After several years, I left the company and stayed in Japan. Before I left, however, I had a few tastes of what commercial Japanese-to-English translation was like.

The first was provided by a former salesperson of mine who had quit the branch and started working for a company selling blood pressure gauges (sphygmomanometers). The company had been established by Takeda Ikuo, founder of the above-noted Takeda Riken, after he left that company. My former employee asked if I could translate the user manual for one of their products. I certainly could. What was I paid? Two blood pressure gauges, in barter for the translation. Wait! There must be people out there paying money for translation. Indeed, there were.

First Arm's-length Client

Hamamatsu TV (currently Hamamatsu Photonics) was a customer of mine for measuring instruments, and I took some translation work from them, translating some catalogs and specifications for their photomultipliers, which are special-purpose vacuum tubes used to measure extremely low light levels. I don't recall the circumstances surrounding my approach to them (or their approach to me), but it was while I was still the branch manager of the US company.

After leaving the measuring instrument manufacturer, my next target was the above-noted Japanese measuring and test instrument manufacturer Takeda Riken. They had been a competitor of mine for some products at the time. My initial connection with them was the salesman who had me translate the blood pressure gauge manuals. He formerly worked for that company and had introduced me to the founder, who left the company he founded when it was essentially taken over by Fujitsu and a major bank. I had done some interpreting for Takeda at meetings and dinners with overseas dealers.

My still-very-modest career as a technical translator was launched. I added another client, one that made FFT (fast Fourier transform) analyzers, by approaching them with my experience as the branch manager of a company in their general business. That company continued to give me work until the bubble burst for them (and many other places) around 1992. In the meantime, I had formed a company, the forerunner of the small company I now operate.

Toward the late 1980s, I for some reason received a phone call from an attorney in the US. Until then, I had no attorney clients. The attorney was coming to Japan to prepare his Japanese client to have some of their employees give testimony in depositions in civil litigation. He wanted to know if I could help as an interpreter in preparing the deponents to give testimony. Depositions? Sure I could, I replied confidently. I then sheepishly asked him what a deposition is. The rest is history, and I have spent more time with attorneys and their clients here than is advisable for anyone, although there is an undeniable synergy between interpreting in depositions and translation work. There has been some drama over the years in the deposition room, but mostly just stress.

More recently, in late 2018, I became involved with interpreting for 35-plus days (including all weekend days) in a high-profile criminal investigation involving senior foreign executives of a major Japanese corporation. Yes, that one. That was indeed drama, although I cannot discuss the substance of the case.

And the Journey Continues

As of this update (July 16, 2022), we are into seventh wave of COVD-19 Japan. That has put a crimp in the task of taking depositions in Japan (read more), but translation remains and fills my waking hours with many things that keep me out of trouble. One trend I have noticed is a switch away from the matured technologies I have grown up with to greater emphasis on things like pharmaceuticals and medical subject matter, including medical hardware. But translation remains healthy, despite rumors to the contrary.