A few weeks ago, at a networking event, a professional I had just met read my palms and told me that not only would I die young (despite having marriage issues in my 60s so obviously it can’t be that young), but also my education line was very long, meaning that I’d never stop learning. This was one of the stranger moments at this event and while the fortune telling was less than convincing, I can’t help but agree with him on education. Most people need professional development and continued education in their respective field. For translators and language professionals, continued education is imperative.
Language is, after all, a living thing that needs nourishment to be kept alive.
At one point, I had basic communicative skills in Korean, enough to make friends and go on a date. However, it’s been 5 years since I left Korea and since then I haven’t watched many Korean dramas, spoken to friends in Korean, or read my Korean textbooks in English or Japanese. Instead I’ve focusing on Japanese so both my listening and speaking abilities in that language have declined, wilting like my plant that I keep forgetting to water.
When I was younger I used to watch lots of drama and anime, yet as I’ve gotten older, I prefer to spend my time reading and listening to adult-oriented academic resources to hone and improve my language abilities, in addition to an occasional anime or drama on CrunchyRoll or AmazonPrime to spice up my life. I’ve found a combination of language learning as well as native resources to be the most efficient. Some that I have been using lately include:
- Jpodcast – A phone app with hundreds of podcasts in Japanese with a variety of subject matter from news to entertainment
- NHK Radio – Online radio news
- 朝日新聞 – Japanese Newspaper
- 日経 – Economic/Business Newspaper
- 青空文庫 – An open source library of literature and essays that are out of copyright. Available on the web and on a phone app (Think Meiji and Taisho era writers like Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Izumi Kyoka, Natsume Soseki and Dazai Osamu etc.)
- Scola – This is through my association with NLSC and has various listening and reading resources to study for the Defense Language Proficiency Test.
- GLOSS – This is a language learning computer program designed by the Department of Defense, also for the DLPT.
- NihongoPro – Online language classes
- 新完全マスター（N1文法）（N1読解） – Japanese Language Proficiency Test textbook for Level 1. I currently have the Grammar and Reading version. In addition to this, I have a large number of JLPT-related textbooks, too many to list.
- Kindle – In the Japanese section, you can find modern and pre-modern literature, educational books, comics, self-help books etc.
Like a muscle which weakens without use, one’s language abilities in both their native and L2 language decreases without constant practice.
While most people realize they need to read, write, listen, and speak in their foreign language to keep it alive, the same is true for their native language. If you want you want to write well, it’s important to read well-written well-phrased documents. Especially if you’re living in a foreign country, it’s important to read or listen to the news, documentaries, educational books, and novels to keep up with one’s own language. While I lived in Asia, I noticed that my own pattern of speech began to sound more non-native, partially adapting to be better understood by my students and other non-native English speakers.
Some useful resources for both listening and reading complex subject matter in English are:
- The Economist– Weekly economic newspaper that has well-written articles often with a sardonic and cutting tone and complex vocabulary.
- TED Talks– Educational videos in a variety of subjects presented for a general audience of non-specialists.
- NPR– News and analysis radio available online.
- EdX– Free online courses in a large variety of subjects. I’ve taken some on Japanese Economics, Humanitarian Law, International Law, and Business Writing. You can pay money to get credit for the courses.
- Kindle- A large source of textbooks, novels, self-help books etc. (There is a large number of Japanese Language textbooks, linguistics texts, editing/writing related books, and books about translation.)
- Free Books App- Many books out of copyright and contains many classics authors such as Frank Baum, Lewis Carol, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Alexandre Dumas etc.
While being a bilingual or multilingual is a prerequisite to be a translator or interpreter, is that the only skill set needed?
The answer to this is a resounding no. This job requires for a statement to be rephrased eloquently in another language carrying the same meaning and register. Understanding the statement is the first step, after that you must be able to either be a good orator who can say an easily understood natural iteration of the statement, or a good writer who can write flowing prose with flawless natural wording as if it had always been in that language. While this may sound fairly simple, there is a lot involved in both comprehending text or statement as well as rendering it in another language.
Understanding a Text or Statement
Any language teacher can tell you there are two forms of competency in a language: BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). BICS is required for day to day communication- so someone who grew up bilingual but never received formal education in their home language would have this skill. CALP is an an understanding of subject area academic language, which requires formal education in that language and is necessary to read textbooks, forms, legal/financial documents etc. For example, many Americans struggle to understand the complex subject matter and specialized vocabulary of English medical forms, tax document, legal contracts.
For this reason, specialization in both translation and interpreting is important. Regardless of vocabulary and language prowess, one needs prior understanding of the subject matter of a text to properly understand it. Some translators have experience as engineers, accountants, or lawyers and fell into translation in their specialized field, while others become translators and then decide what to specialized in based on experience, interest, or opportunity. There are literature, game, and manga translators that found their niche because of their intense interest in that genre of text and just like legal or medical documents, they need to understand the subject matter of their genre, which includes a variety of descriptive words, tone, humor, and a vast range of slang. As a translator for the most part I am a generalist, translating technical documents, leases, tax documents, surveys, articles, and so on; I quite enjoy learning about new subject matters such as GHS classifications, government agencies, rental home rules, and types of radiation therapy, yet I cannot claim to be an expert on any of these subjects.
To this end, research is very important. When translating an academic article, after reading it over at least once, time allowing, the translator ought to read most of the references in that article. (If there are direct quotes of something in Japanese that was originally in English, ideally the translator should try to find the English version of that quote.) Before beginning to translate a topic, reference a Wikipedia article about the subject, check out a few articles on Google Scholar, find other texts of a related nature in both the source text and target text.
Various translation organizations and universities offer workshops, webinars, and courses about specific aspects of translation. ATA, ITI, JAT, and NLSC host in-person workshops/events as well as e-learning and webinars for their members to understand different areas in translation: subject matter, specializations, marketing, CAT tools, and everything to do with this business.
- Proz offers on-demand and scheduled courses in a variety of subjects from translating certain genres of text, translation technology, and how to make it as a freelancer.
- eCPD Webinar offers webinars on a variety of genres and some for specific language pairs. (They is a wonderful webinar for translating contracts from Japanese to English.)
- Simul Academy has e-learning course in Japanese for translation and interpretation from basic principles to genre specific. I would like to take a course on translating legal documents when I have the time and funds.
A Good Translator Must Be a Good Writer
The best advice that I have received is not to be bogged down by the words of a text, but to take the meaning in order to properly convey them. Yet this begs the question, what makes a good writer?
The answer to that depends on what you are writing. You can’t write a novel in the way you write a business proposal or a user manual. Apart from the basics like spelling and grammar, one must write with a purpose and audience in mind. As a translator, the most agonizing question is how much to stick to the original phrasing and how much to use creative license; contracts and technical documents have less room for creativity, while literature, entertainment, and advertisements need to be localized, not just translated.
There is a plethora of resources online, free or otherwise, to improve one’s writing skills. As mentioned previously edX has both academic and business writing courses and Coursera has a wide range of writing-, editing-, and English grammar-related courses free to audit but you have to pay to get all the course material and to get feedback on your writing, the latter of which is pivotal to actually improve one’s own writing. Currently, I am going to start an online business writing course in Japanese to improve my L2 writing skills, which should be interesting as I am the first foreigner that has joined this class.
One of the best aspects of this field is that there is no end to new things one can learn, new subject matters to translate, new terms and phrases in both your L1 or L2 language. In the end, as a translator you never stop learning new things so while the rest of my palm reading was dubious at best, I think he was right about at least one thing.