Translator – so you can work anywhere, right?

I was chatting to a new acquaintance the other day and we got on to the subject of my work as a translator. He said that being a translator must give me freedom. This is true, I said. I pretty much choose when to work and how much I want to work.

And you can choose where to work too, he said. You can spend a few hours in Starbucks translating. This seems to be a common misconception among people I talk to about translating. While it would be nice to settle into a comfortable chair at my local coffee shop and spend the morning working and sipping a cafe latte, I never actually do it.

The work I handle is confidential. I have signed NDA with my clients, and I take this confidentiality seriously. If I worked in a coffee shop, the files open on my computer could be seen. Public WI-FI is not secure. I would be constantly worried about the lack of privacy and information leakage. The risk is too great, so no, I told my acquaintance, the “digital nomad” work from anywhere life is not compatible with the work I actually do. I need to be in my office, which is accessible only to me, to do my work.

My writing business is a different story. I write graded readers for my own publishing house, so confidentiality is not so much of a concern. It doesn’t matter if someone looks over my shoulder an glimpses a few sentences of my latest thriller. But when I’m translating? That’s when I’m shut away in my office for a morning or afternoon. The downside is that I have to make my own coffee, but it’s more than worth it for the peace of mind it brings.

Which books have you translated?

Whenever I tell someone I am a translator, they often ask me this question. As soon as they hear the word translator, they think of literature. When I tell them I do commercial translation, not literary translation, I often have to explain what it is. I work with translation agencies, businesses and local governments to translate product information, product packaging, websites, tourism guides, museum displays, press releases, manuals, academic papers, and more, from Japanese into English.

Literary translation and commercial translation are two different fields. In my fifteen years working as a translator, I have been asked to translate books on numerous occasions. I accepted three of the requests, two because they were short and I knew the subject matter, and one because I had already translated most of the material that was going in the book. The three books were non-fiction and I could translate them comfortably without too much research.

Once, someone asked me to translate a work of fiction. While the book looked interesting, I knew it would take me a long time, and would require many hours of research, consulting with the author, and checking and rewriting. It would require complete immersion in the story, and an understanding as deep as the author’s. It would have taken me so much time, there was no way I could have done it, and still managed to eat and pay the bills.

I enjoy reading and writing fiction. Another job of mine is writing graded readers for learners of English. So far, I have written around thirty books. While these works are short, I understand just how much time, thought and energy goes into creating a work of fiction. I imagine literary translation would be like writing the book from scratch. There are linguistic and cultural differences to consider. The book must be accessible and comprehensible to its target audience, and must read like it was written for them. That takes considerable time. I know some literary translators. All of them have other jobs which pay the bills, and they work on the translations in their spare time. They can take up to a year to complete a book, sometimes longer, if edits and rewrites are required. Most of my jobs are completed in a day or two, or sometimes a week, depending on the length. It is rare that I get a job lasting longer than a week or so. I like getting work done and out the door quickly. It gives me more time to write my own fiction, and it pays my bills.

What have you translated?

Lawyer give his customers signed a contract in the document. Consulting in regard to the various contracts

Very often, new clients ask me this question. They want to know what work I have done before they ask me to translate for them. I would like to tell them what I have translated, as I am proud of a lot of the work I have done. Much of it has been for large multi-national corporations, or national governments. However, there is something stopping me from giving a potential client a list of work I have done. It’s the non-disclosure agreement (NDA). More times than not, I have to sign one of these before starting work on a project, or working with a new client. The agreement prevents me from talking about any of the work I have done. This means that I can only give vague answers when asked what I have translated, such as “company IR information”, “government website”, “product catalogue (food, cosmetics)”.

The only work I can mention specifically is that which has my name on it. I have translated two books and done the subtitles for a DVD, all of which have my name listed.

When looking for a translator, you might be wary of the translator who is vague regarding their past work. However, it is the translator who tells you everything they have done in detail that should give you cause for concern. If they are talking openly about work they have done for other organizations, will they also talk to other companies about the work they do for you? If confidentiality is not a problem for you, and you don’t require an NDA, that’s great. The translator gets to list your work on their CV, which is helpful. But if you require a degree of confidentiality, in many cases, the vaguer an experienced translator is about past work, the better it is for you.

Calculating the cost of a translation

When you are submitting a file for translation, you want to know how much it will cost. For translation between Japanese and English, it used to be the norm to calculate the cost on a page basis. One page of Japanese was taken as 400 characters and one page of English as 200 words. There are still companies who calculate costs in this way, however, the majority of translation agencies I work for, and my own office, calculate the cost on a per character/word basis.

So what it counted? The number of source language characters/words, or the number of characters/words in the completed translation? It depends. When I started working as a translator, the agencies that sent me work calculated the cost on a target language basis. This meant that neither the customer, nor I, the translator, knew the actual cost of the translation before it was finished. The client was given a rough estimate, and only found out the actual cost when the translation was finished. In Japanese to English translation, 400 characters is said to correspond to 200 English words, but this is just a guide. With this method of calculation, the exact cost depends on the style of writing of the translator. Some write clearly and concisely, others less so.

When I started my translation office, and began to get clients, the first question they asked was “How much will this cost?” Even now, this is always the first question my clients ask. So that I can give them an accurate answer, right down to the last character, I calculate the cost by counting the characters in the source text, that is, the Japanese document they give me, and provide an estimate based on that. The client knows exactly what he or she will pay once the job is finished. There is no ambiguity.

If you are requesting a translation, I recommend you ask the company or translator to calculate the cost on a source text basis. This way, you won’t have any surprises when the translation is delivered.