The Holy Trinity Skill Set for TranslationNative-level source understanding, subject-matter expertise, and native target-language writing ability

(March 14, 2019; updated April 23, 2024)

Executive Summary: These three skills are essential to high-quality translation. Without them, a translator will flounder and not likely produce a high-quality translation. What's more, most translation is purchased from bulk translation brokers that cannot judge whether the translators from whom they purchase translations have these skills. And now AI, which can lay claim only to attempting to emulate human writing and translation behavior, is purported to be able to replace professional translators in the translation process.

With more and more translation being sold as if it were a commodity, created by unknown translators with unverified capabilities, and in unknowable and undisclosed venues, the risk of serious problems for translation consumers has dramatically increased over the days when translation consumers could know who was doing their translations. The key to avoiding those problems is engaging with and purchasing translation from professional translators. Keep in mind, please, that almost no translation resellers (brokers) have professional translators—or any translators—in their employ. But even if you engage with an professional translation practitioner, what qualifies someone to translate your documents?

The answer is rooted in the three skills that are essential in supporting the activity of providing Japanese-to-English translation with reliable high-quality, the holy trinity skill set for translation. The absence of or weakness in any of the three skills will greatly increase the risk of a failed translation. And it is safe to say that almost all Japanese-to-English translation sold in markets such as the US is done by translation brokers that purchase translations from translators (or other translation brokers) deficient in one or more of these skills.

Native-level Understanding of Japanese for Japanese-to-English Translations

Native level reading ability in Japanese is not achievable quickly or easily by native English speakers (NESs), nor is study at a university an assurance of such ability. Even after majoring in and studying Japanese for years in a university, few NESs are equal to the task of reading and understanding the Japanese texts they will be asked to translate in the real world of commercial translation. That level of ability almost always requires years of additional study, usually involving long periods of living in Japan and actively using Japanese in daily life.

If you consider the reality that much of the Japanese-to-English translation sold in the US in recent years, for example, has been done in China, where the translators have native-level skill in neither the source language (Japanese) nor the target language (English), the seriousness of the problem becomes clear.

But what if you use AI, which understands Japanese?

AI understands nothing. It attempts, by acquiring statistics on a huge amount of language data, to emulate the behavior of humans who would actually understand things.

Subject-matter Expertise

Any Japanese text worth paying money to translate has identifiable subject matter; it is "about something." Some translators claim to be “general translators.” The notion that they can translate any subject matter with the same level of quality is ironically and sadly true in most cases. Quality suffers when jack-of-all-trades translators attempt to translate much beyond textbook exercises in the Japanese language.

When a translator takes on an assignment in subject matter that is over their head, frantic Googling for the answers is not the answer. A translator needs to start out with at least a basic understanding of the subject matter, supplemented by awareness of the context, and a level of understanding approaching that of the intended reader is highly preferred.

A lack of subject-matter expertise results in two problems. It not only prevents a translator from understanding the source-language text, but also almost always means the translator cannot write in the style expected by the intended reader, who does have subject-matter expertise and will be immediately struck by the translator's lack of familiarity with the subject matter or, erroneously and more seriously, will conclude that it was the author's lack of familiarity that is the problem.

But what if you use AI, which understands all fields?

Despite all the recent hype, although AI has "learned" by scraping astronomical amounts of data from cyberspace, it does not have subject-matter expertise and does not actually understand any field. AI systems merely attempt to emulate the writing behavior of human translators by learning what translation a human would produce, and they often fail in that attempt, because translating the words based on statistical analysis without understanding the meaning is as dangerous for software-based AI systems as it is for human translators.

Native-level Writing Ability in the Target Language

This skill should be a given, but has historically been treated as an afterthought in Japanese-to-English translation, probably the major reason being cost; native-level English writing translators are more expensive than those translating into English as a foreign language.

But what if you use AI, which writes nearly perfect English?

One of the most serious problems presented by AI-generated artificial translations is ironically the high quality of the English that AI produces.

As the quality of AI-produced English text improves, it becomes more difficult to sense that something is wrong in a translation. Errors are hidden behind an attractive curtain of human-like English. Avoiding problems requires post-editors—a new breed of worker sought out in efforts to eliminate professional translators—who have a healthy level of skepticism and a high level of translation skill.

With the fees translation brokers are willing to pay such workers sharply dropping, however, it will become increasingly difficult to acquire the services of such people. The inevitable result will be that the high-quality English will blind post-editors to the presence of problems in increasing numbers of cases.

AI is Not a Silver Bullet

Although AI has been touted as being the answer to myriad problems, it does not obviate the reliance on professional translators in producing translations of high quality that can be trusted.