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

(Published March 14, 2019; last edited July 7, 2022)

Executive Summary: Native-level reading skill in the source language, subject-matter expertise, and native-level writing skill in the target language are essential to high-quality translation. The bad news is that, without these skills, a translator will flounder and your translation will likely fail. And the worse news is that most translation is purchased from bulk translation brokers who cannot judge whether the translators to whom they subcontract have these skills.

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 a translation consumer could know who was doing their translations. The key to avoiding those problems is engaging with the people from whom you purchase translations and clearly understanding that almost no translation resellers (brokers) have translators in their employ. But even if you engage with an actual translation practitioner, what questions should you be asking?

The answer lies 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 or weakness of 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 yet other brokers) seriously deficient in one or more of these skills.

Native-level Comprehension of the Source-language Text

Native level reading ability in Japanese is not achievable quickly or easily, or by study that is limited to formal learning in a university. Even after majoring in and studying Japanese for years in a university, very few Westerners 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 takes 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, for example, is done in China, where the translators have native-level skill in neither the source language nor the target language and will almost never acquire such skills, the seriousness of the problem becomes clear. More details are provided in Translation Supply Chain Integrity and Accountability

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,” and the reason for this claim could stem from a fear of receiving too little work by restricting their field of specialty or by a misguided belief that they can translate well in any field. The notion that they can translate anything with the same level of quality (seldom is there a preferred field expressed) is ironically 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. You need to start out with at least a basic understanding of the subject matter and 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.

People who think that intoning the mantra of machine translation—with or without the vaunted artificial intelligence—is the answer should think again. Despite all the recent hype, machine translation does not have subject-matter expertise and does not even actually understand anything; such systems merely attempt to mimic human translation by learning what translation a human would produce and they often fail in that attempt, because translating the words without understanding the meaning is as dangerous for software-based translation systems as it is for human translators.

Native-level Writing Ability in the Target Language

This skill should be a given, but is often treated as an afterthought, probably the major reason being cost; native-level English writing translators are more expensive than those translating into English as a foreign language. But for rushed translations for such uses as discovery documents in US litigation, another factor at work is the perceived need to brute-force translate huge volumes using large numbers of faceless translators, regardless of the poor quality of translations done in places such as China, where they are almost certainly done by translators with neither Japanese nor English as their native language.

If you only need or think you need only quick, dirty, and cheap translations, order them from a major bulk translation seller in the US, but you should be resigned to receiving translations of questionable quality. But at least when you get down to a limited subset of more important documents, you should consider using a high-quality translation service that actually employs translators. Bulk Japanese-to-English translation sellers, at least in the US, almost never have employees to do your translations; they are very rarely anything more than purchasers and resellers of translation, essentially brokers. This being the case (and it is the case), you need to go to a different translation provider to commission a high-quality translation. Throwing a rough translation back to the original bulk translation seller for an improved or "certified" version of the translation is seldom a useful approach, because the sad reality of translation is that a silk purse can rarely be created from a sow's ear, particularly when the translation broker cannot tell a silk purse from a sow's ear. The total effort and cost required first to commission a rough translation and then turn the rough translation into a good translation is most often greater than starting from scratch using a qualified professional translator.