Nurture, Nature, Decisions, and Luck

Most people—including translators—have met others who seem to have a special gift for doing something. For translators, this “something” is often an aptitude for learning and using a foreign language. Is it nurture or nature? I think the notion that it is one of these to the exclusion of the other or even to an overwhelming degree can be discarded. It’s more complicated.

All the inherited language-acquisition DNA in the world will not obviate study and the opportunities to acquire a foreign language. And for a person without the requisite innate ability, study will often be futile. But there are other factors that affect outcomes for a person aiming at becoming a translator.

Conscious Life and Career Decisions

Translators have numerous opportunities to make decisions that will greatly affect their lives—including their earning power—as translators. Which opportunities you decide to take can greatly affect your life as a translator. One is the choice of where to live. Even in this era of being connected anywhere at any time, your physical location can play an important role in your career outcomes, albeit often in an indirect way.


Although I might boast about the good decisions I made along the way, I must admit that good fortune has also helped me numerous times in my journey as a Japanese-to-English translator. Some of that good fortune resulted quickly in useful short-term outcomes; others resulted in longer-term results long after the fortuitous event or circumstances. And sometimes good fortune is only recognizable in hindsight.

Acquisition of Japanese

For example, as a Russian language specialist in the USN during the first Cold War, I was posted to Japan. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that was very good fortune. It was enhanced by my active decision to learn about Japan and learn Japanese, essentially opting out of the very common life of my colleague “RUling” spooks here in the 1960s, many of whom spent their time chasing bar girls. My choice to learn Japanese and avoid English-capable locals was a good one, although at the time I didn’t fully realize the advantage and implications of that choice.

Working for a US Company in Japan

After obtaining an engineering degree and working for about five years in a fiber optics lab of a large US company, I took a job that required Japanese ability and had me establish and run the Japan branch of a US manufacturing company selling electronic products in Japan. The appearance of that opportunity was luck. Taking that job turned out to be a very good decision, not necessarily because of the work itself, but because of the peripheral opportunities it offered.

Getting Stuck Selling in Japan

Being shorthanded, I was forced to go out myself and meet clients and interact with them in Japanese. This was ostensibly bad luck and was extremely stressful. At first, however, I did it with an experienced salesperson, and I stole everything I could from him about interacting with clients. The chance to do this was good fortune. It stood me in good stead when I needed to sell my translation services.

Deciding Not to Return to the US

As my time at the US company came to an end, I opted to leave the company and stay here in Japan. This was a good decision. If I had returned to the US and then became a translator, I would probably have found myself stuck working for major translation brokers for a fraction of the rates available to translators working with direct clients in Japan. I would probably never have any interaction with translation consumers or people who write the things I would translate. This was a good choice, but I did not know it at the time, since I knew nothing about translation as a career. I am talking about the late 1970s, when I had yet to meet a translator, and the notion of becoming a translator was just beginning to form at the back of my mind, as I did a few translations for several of my clients for electronic measuring instruments.

Change What You Can

Things happening by pure fortune are out of your control. Don’t worry about them. But conscious decisions are a totally different matter. Everyone is ultimately on their own in deciding how to proceed in their career. But here are a few suggestions nobody asked me for, and as agency translation work dries up, these ideas are more relevant than they were just a few years ago.

Invest in Acquiring a Specialization

Because of agencies using AI to translate, the need to move away from agencies will place more importance on specialization. You can fool a clueless agency project manager who knows nothing about subject matter (and probably also very little about translation), but if meeting translation consumers who understand what they have written is part of a strategy to survive, you are not going to be able to Google your way out of lack of subject-matter expertise. You need to invest early in specialization.

Think about Your Location

Only a tiny fraction of the Japanese-to-English translator population has any significant work from direct clients, and most JA-EN translators in the US work almost exclusively through translation brokers. Almost none of these translators ever meet a translation consumer or even interact with anyone at their brokers who knows Japanese. Is that what you want to do for the rest of your working life as a translator?

Unless you are determined to never having to meet a translation client and never having to acquire good spoken Japanese, you might try to move to Japan to at least develop direct clients. You will have a very hard time developing any good Japanese clients from outside Japan. That’s just a feature of how business works in Japan. Once you have acquired clients in Japan, you might be able to port those clients to a new location. Even then, however, you might lose them, because the chances for interaction are greatly reduced once you have placed an ocean between you and your clients. Yes, even in the era of connection everywhere all the time.

That said, it is not easy to come to Japan to work. A foreigner cannot just waltz into the immigration [sic] office and say they have arrived and will be a freelancer. In almost all cases you need a cover story that demonstrates that you have a “real” job. Translating as a freelancer is not a “real” job. Resourcefulness is called for.

I have more annoying thoughts about survival that I will post in the coming weeks.