Japanese Traffic Court Interpreting

Court Interpreting and Traffic Court in the US

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Photo by Nout Gons on

This article is a compilation of my research to prepare for court interpreting and understanding US and Japanese traffic laws. I hope that this will be useful for those interested in legal interpreting, Japanese translation and interpreting, and Japan-US comparative law. For those interested in learning more about the Japanese legal interpreting and translation I’ve included some legal Japanese terminology and an excerpt of laws in both English and Japanese. If you would like me to transliterate such terminology in future posts, please leave a comment below. This is the first post in my series on topics on legal translation and interpretation. If you have any topics related to Japanese translation or law that you’d be interested in reading about, leave a comment so I can add it to this series.

As a disclaimer, while I have experience working as an interpreter in manufacturing and at a film production, I am mainly a translator and am not certified as a court interpreter.

Interpreting is like the public performance version of translation.

Jean Herbert in the Interpreter’s Guide says the three main steps in interpreting are understanding, conversion, and delivery. So the interpreter must have a wide vocabulary and deep understanding of both languages as well as a background that allows them to understand the topic. For understanding the topic, prior research and an understanding of the interpretive performance is imperative. The conversion of this is taking the meaning of the utterance and transferring it to another linguistic code while maintaining the same register, tone, style, and meaning as the original. Some linguistic issues Herbert noted are: proverbs and metaphors, allusions to literary works, jokes or stories, speaker errors, obscure or ambiguous material, and inserted excerpts from written documents unseen by the interpreter. Once this utterance has been converted to another language, the interpreter still must deliver it, like an actor, with good articulation and without idiosyncratic gestures. After all, while the interpreter plays an active role conveying the message from one party to another, they are a conduit for this information and must not let their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions interfere with this information in either verbal or non-verbal forms of communication.

The two biggest fields of interpreting are court interpreting and healthcare interpreting. However, the largest employer of full-time Japanese/English interpreters in USA is actually the manufacturing industry. Please check out Allyson Larimer’s article for more information on this topic.

In the case of court interpreting, since the landmark case, U.S. ex. rel. Negron v. State of New York, 434 F.2d 386, US courts are required to allow or provide an interpreter for those who are Non-English Speaking (NES) or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) to appear in a court as the proceeding is required to be conducted in English, but the case is not valid if the defendant cannot understand the proceedings. The modality of court interpreting is often simultaneous, consecutive, and sight-translation. Simultaneous while the prosecution and defense make their opening and closing remarks, consecutive for witnesses, and performing sight-translation for any court documents or pieces of evidence handed to the their client.

Traffic Court Interpreting

Compared to most types of trials, traffic court (交通裁判所) is a relatively simple trial for both the defendant (被告) and an interpreter. Most traffic offenses do not qualify for trial by jury so they tend to be a more informal trial overseen by a judge and often conducted without a legal representation for either the defense or prosecution. In fact in many cases, there’s no one for the prosecution (起訴側) such as the officer on the scene or the victim in a minor crash. After all, in a mandatory court appearance is only mandatory for the defendant not the officer that issued the ticket nor for the victim of a crash.

Picture from “Trial by Judge: Understanding Traffic Court” at NOLO
So instead the defense  (被告側) must either prove their innocence by providing evidence (証拠) and witnesses  (証人) or admit their guilt. Sumutoko advises Japanese nationals in Illinois that in the case of a traffic violation resulting in a mandatory court appearance 「裁判所出廷が必須な場合」there are three options.
  • Plead guilty, pay the fine, and receive a conviction「罪状を認め、提示された罰金額を支払う(記録が残る)」
  • Plead guilty, pay the fine, attend Driver’s School, and avoid a conviction「「罪状を認め、提示された罰金額プラスDriver’s School料を支払い、Driver’s Schoolに行く(記録が抹消される)」
  • Plead not guilty and fight it in court 「罪状を認めず、裁判所で争う」

In most traffic cases, the defendant pleads guilty, which also simplifies the proceedings. Once the defendant pleads guilty and answers questions from the judge, the judge usually takes into consideration both the severity of the offense and decedent’s driving record (運転歴) to determine the fine. (For a minor traffic violation, a judge fined me, but kept that violation off my driving record since I had a spotless record without even a speeding ticket.)

Regardless of the circumstances as the interpreter, you are not allowed to advise the defendant on what to plead or anything else related to the trial. One fundamental aspect of interpreting is that you are not an advocate for the client so the interpreter cannot give any legal advise or an explanation of legal jargon not explained by the other judge, yet without a fundamental understanding of such jargon or proceedings one cannot properly interpret.

Traffic Laws in the USA and Japan

The US has a reputation for being a very litigious country, something that could be a topic all by itself. The Attorney Michiko Ito described the US as 「《契約会社》アメリカ、《起訴ずきの国》アメリカ」”The US: filled with companies for contracts, the US: a country in love with lawsuits” in her book アメリカ駐在員のための法律常識 aimed giving Japanese nationals residing in the USA a general understanding of laws for living and doing business. This can be embodies within Traffic Laws of the USA vs. Japan and which violations can result in a mandatory trial.

As Michiko Ito explains, the US court system is complicated. Most laws are enacted on a state level and even if certain actions are illegal regardless of the location (speeding, DUI, DWI, running a red light or stop sign, not yielding to a bus, not stopping when a police pulls you over), how these rules are enforced and the fines they could incur can be different from state to state. In Illinois, these laws are found in the Illinois Vehicle Code (イリノイ車両法) (625 ILCS 5/), whereas the traffic laws in Japan are centralized and the applicable laws are the Road Traffic Act (道路交通法).

For offenses that result in fines, with or without a trial, both Illinois and Japan has a Driver’s Licence Point System or 運転免許の点数 in which with enough deduction one’s licence can be suspended 免停 or revoked 免許取消.

In Illinois, this is calculated in a one month period and incurring violations from 15 to 44 points results in a 2-month suspension, 45 to 74 points in a 3-month suspension, 75 to 89 points in a 6-month suspension, 90 to 99 points in a 9-month suspension, and 100 or more points in a 12-month suspension. The more infractions one occurs the more likely a judge may order for their licence to be revoked. These infractions range from 5 points for driving 5 miles under the speed limit, 10 points for failing to obey an officer’s orders, 20 points for texting or using a phone while driving, 20 points for not stopping at a stop sign, 5 to 50 points for speeding, depending on the speed, 55 points for reckless driving.

In Japan, it depends on your past offenses. With no prior record, a violation of 6 to 8 points results in a 30 day suspension, 9 to 11 points in a 60 day suspension, and 12 to 14 points in a 90 day suspension. Any points above that and one’s license will be revoked, once that is revoked and the 欠格期間, which is the time period before one can apply for a new license and re-enroll into driving classes, depends on the offense. Three violations will result in immediate license revocation: driving under the influence (飲酒運転), driving without a license (無免許運転), and causing a serious accident (悪質な事故). The Road Traffic act states that:

第六十五条 何人も、酒気を帯びて車両等を運転してはならない。Article 65 (1) It is prohibited for any person to drive a vehicle or streetcar while under the influence of alcohol.
2 何人も、酒気を帯びている者で、前項の規定に違反して車両等を運転することとなるおそれがあるものに対し、車両等を提供してはならない。(2) It is prohibited for any person to provide a vehicle or streetcar to a person under the influence of alcohol who is likely to drive it in violation of the preceding paragraph.
3 何人も、第一項の規定に違反して車両等を運転することとなるおそれがある者に対し、酒類を提供し、又は飲酒をすすめてはならない(3) It is prohibited for any person to provide an alcoholic beverage to or encourage the consumption of alcohol by a person who is likely to drive a vehicle or streetcar in violation of paragraph (1).

There is some overlap in Japanese and Illinois law procedures as driving under the influence is considered a felony not a traffic violation. In the case of Illinois, it will result in up to a $2,500 fine, up to 1 year jail time, and a one year suspension of one’s licence. However it’s important to note the difference in what is considered the legal limit. In Illinois (and most of the USA), a DUI is considered a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or more. Japan is much more strict and a DUI is 0.03% or more, in addition jail time can be up to 3 years with up to a 500,000 Yen fine.

With these two basic systems in place, what offenses result in mandatory traffic court?

In Illinois, the officer at the scene will issue a ticket and will either check the box for “appearance in court required” or “No appearance in court required”. Even for infractions that don’t require a court appearance, it can be contested in court and paying the fine whether it’s a parking ticket or speeding ticket is tantamount to admitting guilt. For certain violations, as part of the separation of powers law enforcement as part of the executive branch needs to delegate these fines to a judge in the judicial branch. Any violations resulting in an accident will lead to mandatory appearance in court, but other possible violations are speeding, reckless driving, bus violation, failure to yield, and disobeying an officer’s orders regardless of the severity of the initial offense. In regards to this final one, the Illinois vehicle codes states,

(625 ILCS 5/11-203) (from Ch. 95 1/2, par. 11-203)
    Sec. 11-203. Obedience to police officers. No person shall willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of any police officer, fireman, person authorized by a local authority to direct traffic, or school crossing guard invested by law with authority to direct, control, or regulate traffic. Any person convicted of violating this Section is guilty of a petty offense and shall be subject to a mandatory fine of $150.

In Japan, on the other hand, only serious violations result in a trial. The officers have a blue ticket for minor violations and a red ticket for serious violations. For minor traffic violations, if you pay the traffic violation fine (反則金) then the violation will not appear on your criminal record unlike in the USA where it’s recorded in your driving record. Similar to the US if these fees are not paid it will lead to a criminal procedure and another fine. However, if you deny guilt and try to appeal this ticket, it will also result in a criminal procedure. In the case of a very minor violation or one’s first violation, it might not be prosecuted and the initial fine could be waived. However, if the defendant admits guilt during the procedure then they will have to pay a criminal fine (罰金), which will appear on their criminal record. If they deny the validity of the ticket, the defendant may appear in court. Sumikawa’s law office advises against fighting a traffic violation fine as the criminal proceedings and trial will appear on your record.

In the case of major traffic violations, a criminal proceeding is required and if the defendant claims innocence a subsequent trial. Some examples of major crimes are drunk driving, driving while on drugs,  a hit and run, and speeding 50 km over the speeding limit. Japan also has an additional traffic regulation for these sorts of violations when they result in either death or injury, the Act Concerning Punishment of Automobile Driving Resulting in Death or Injury (自動車運転支所行為処罰法).

When it comes to laws and policies, the devil is in the detail and a law on the books is only as powerful as its enforcement. After all, in the same exact road and going the same speed, one person can get fined and another person can get away scot-free.  One person can not notice the officer’s siren going off for a while and once they pull over, get slammed with a mandatory court appearance, but another person may get an officer that’s more understanding and gives them a warning or simply issues them a ticket. There are significantly more minor violations that can lead to a mandatory trial in the USA, although there is overlap in what is considered a severe traffic offense and what may result in a license revocation. The USA is a nation for cars and has limited public transportation so the suspension or revocation of one’s license will have a serious impact on one’s life and can be the difference between being able to go to work or getting groceries and not being able to do so.

Japan does not bring as many traffic violations to court and when it does it’s considered a criminal proceeding, but tends to be settled out of court. It is significantly more difficult to get a driver’s licence in Japan (the driving age is 18 compared to 15 to 16 in the USA) and it is much easier to get it suspended or revoked. Major traffic violations tend to have much harsher penalties in Japan compared to the USA. Furthermore, traffic accidents that result in injury or death are considered an “intentional” crime, which gives the legal groundwork for large criminal fines and longer jail time.

When interpreting in a US court, while Japanese law is not imperative, it is useful to understand the cultural differences to understand the position and thought processes of someone who might not completely familiar with US laws and regulations. Personally, I think exploring comparative law and policy, much like comparative linguistics gives a greater understanding of how different cultures intersect and diverge. For translation or interpreting, one needs to understand both their own culture and their learned culture as well as understand the topic discussed or written about.


*Please stay tuned for this legal translation series for topics on human rights laws, contract laws, family registries, and legal specialization. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, as well as any other topics in this category that you may be interested in.

Specialization and the Translator


Ever since I began studying translation, I have been told by more experienced translators as well as translation agencies, that as a translator I should specialize in a particular subject area. As a business strategy this makes sense, you want to find your niche, an area you know about that others — in my case Japanese Translators — don’t know as well so you can not only be a conduit between languages but be a specialist in that subject. While there are many Japanese Translators, there are relatively few who specialize in Heian literature and few who can read or understand ancient Japanese or have studied paleography to be able to read kuzushiji.

An example of Edo Period Kuzushiji
However, there is a Catch-22 of being too specialized in a subject area that has a limited market as it limits the type of assignments you can get. Of course, a Heian specialized translator would be the go-to person for a University or literary company wanting to translate some lesser known diaries, but that doesn’t mean there are many projects in this genre of translations. About 90% of translation are technical translations, a statistics one of my professors told me on the first day of class. Yet technical translation encompasses a wide genre of specific specializations: IT,  life science, medicine, automotive, manufacturing etc. The User Manuals for medical equipment that I proofread at one job and the daily updates for machine/casting lines at the factory that I translated for another job are both technical, but require different specializations.

There are specialty translation groups, regardless of language pairs, such as NAJIT the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, and ALTA the American Literary Translators Association. JAT, the Japanese Association of Translators has four translation genre specific specialty groups: Law, Pharmaceuticals, Patent, and Entertainment. (They do also have groups for translator tools, interpreting etc.) This is of course, not an all-inclusive list of specializations. For Japanese specifically, within entertainment in addition to literature, dramas, and movies, one can translate manga, video games, and anime, which encompasses a large and profitable localization industry. Many universities teaching Translation as either a BA or MA, such as Babel University, focus on the specializations IT, Law, Finance, and Medical.

So then how does one pick a specialization?

Does someone with specialty knowledge become a translator or does a translator go on to become someone with specialty knowledge?

Of course, it goes both ways. There are people who have studied medicine, law, pharmaceuticals, various branches of science, IT, finance, marketing, etc who decide to become translators and can easily select their specialization, because of their work history and undergraduate degree. There are also linguists who studied the humanities then went onto study translation, who decide later on to pick up a particular specialization either because of an interest in that area study or because they happened to get a job where they translated that genre and with experience as well as extra studying became an expert in that area. Specializations are earned through work experience in that subject area, translation experience in that subject area, and through a degree or other formal studies of that area.

My BA is in Linguistics and Global Studies, which is a combination of Economics, History, Anthropology, Politics, and Intercultural Communication. These studies give me qualifications for academic translations in the humanities, and my Global Studies major gives me a spring-board to learn more in-depth about International Law and to potentially specialize in law in the long-term. In my experience, however, there is not a huge market for academic translations and without taking extra course, it is not sufficient to give my a qualification in the law.

So then the next question, is how to become qualified in a subject not previously studied or directly worked in. I have heard arguments that an ideal translator is someone who have worked in that field and becomes a translator, i.e. an author who decides to translate literature, a lawyer who decides to translate legal texts, a banker who decides to translate financial documents, an engineer who decides to translate technical documents. The main thesis of this argument is sensible, one should translate what they understand. However, it seems to negate the importance of linguistic knowledge as well as the role of research that even a layman is capable of. I may not be an expert in insurance or family registers, yet I can do serious research into these subjects in both the source and target language and create a well-written translation. Of course, there are more specialized texts in medicine or automotive-related that I could not in good faith accept.

So then how much research makes one an expert? Of course, a Google search may be sufficient to understand the meaning of a particular text, but few would claim that qualifies them as an expert. I have gone to one talk about Patents and attempted to apply for a training program doing them, enough to understand how complicated this genre of translation is. (I’d go as far as to say, it made me realize this specialization much like automotive specific technical translation is not for me.) Taking a course in your desired genre (ie. finance, medicine, pharmaceuticals, law, etc) either content or translation focused is one step towards specializing in the subject, that in and of itself is insufficient for specialization. Ideally if someone wants to be an expert in a particular industry they need to study that industry by reading textbooks, taking courses, getting experience translating between their language pairs in it, and keeping up with companies and people in that industry. One talk I went to by a legal translator recommended joining industry groups so that you can talk to the leaders in that industry and learn what the most pressing issues were. Reading one book or going to one lecture on a subject doesn’t make one an expert, however, doing countless hours of research, doing various courses on the subject whether it’s online or in person, reading lots of books on the subject, and joining groups about this subject overtime can turn one into an expert.

One should pick a specialization that they are interested in or passionate about, or one that they understand, while keeping in mind what market is like for this area. (Localization is a large industry, but it doesn’t pay as well as a specialization in law or medicine. Conversely, getting qualified in law and medicine is quite expensive and time consuming.) I know people who work in localization and love manga and light novels, they are experts at using slang and translating humor. I know a medical interpreter who never studied nursing, but who did training in healthcare interpreting and feels fulfilled in her job. I know some self-proclaimed generalists who are quite happy translating all sorts of texts and find nothing wrong with not specializing. For myself, the last few months, I have begun looking more into translating contracts and specifically human rights law and immigration law, and while I’m certain there are more actual jobs in contracts, within the next five years I would like to specialize in this area of international law.

At a later date, I’ll speak a little more specifically about Legal Translation.

A Guide to Commonly Used Terms in Translation

Every now and again, I tell my friends or new business connections that I’m a translator and their eyes glaze over in confusion when I explain the services I provide. As any linguist knows, every field has its own unique vocabulary and as an outsider it’s difficult to understand exactly what these terms mean. Many companies and individuals who want translation, interpretation, or localization services do not know much about the industry and often request a different service from what they want. So this time, I want to talk about some commonly used terms in the translation industry and address some questions, I’ve been asked about this

  • What is the difference between translation and interpretation?

Translation refers to written texts and requires analytical skills, although it does include subtitling multimedia files or translation of a written transcription of a media file. The main service that I offer is translation including both documents and multimedia files. In addition to translation, there is also localization, which is a term used for the translation of websites, advertisements, and entertainment. Localization allows for a larger degree of artistic licence and creativity in order to localize a movie title, advertising slogans, jokes etc so that it is understandable in the language and culture it is translated into.

Interpretation refers to verbal communication and requires a quick response. Consecutive interpretation is done after someone has finished speaking and is often used for meetings. Simultaneous interpreting is done while the speaker is speaking and is often used for multi-national conferences like the World Summit or for court interpreting.

Translators do not always do interpretation and there are interpreters who don’t translate. It’s the difference between a Public Speaker and a Writer, some Writers love speaking publicly and others are shy. Some Public Speakers struggle to write with the same eloquence that they can speak.

  • What’s the difference between proofreading and editing?

Proofreading is a bottom-up activity, correcting and checking for the smaller linguistic units of a text such as spelling, word-usage, and grammar. Editing is a top-down activity and checks the content of the text for consistency, phrasing, and conciseness. Both Proofreading and editing are activities that focus on the Target Text (ie. translated text), although bilingual Proofreaders/Editors will also check the Target Text against to Source Text (original document). However, this particular QA (i.e. quality assurance) activity has its own term: checking. In translation, Checking means checking both the translation and source to ensure the translation is accurate, complete, and natural.

However, there is an addition Quality Assurance activity in which comprehending either the Source Text or Target Text is irrelevant and focuses on DTP (Desk Top Publishing). This is called Document Review which ensures the layout of the translation matches the source, and checks for images, text overlap, completed translation, and that the numbers match. One does not need to know either language to perform document review. Some translators also perform Desk Top Publishing services which is fixing the issues found by the Document Reviewer, which could be themselves. DTP can be done on common software like Microsoft Word or digital design software like InDesign or Photoshop.

This is, of course, only a small portion of terms and services within the language industry. What questions do you have about the translation industry and what terms used by translation/localization companies or individuals within the industry confuse you?


Start of a new era: Latham Sprinkle Translation and Editing Launches

While it might be a slight exaggeration to call this the dawning of a new era, it certainly is the beginning of a very new way of life, casting off the shackles of stability to fully join the gig economy. Today marks, the official launching of my freelance business, Latham Sprinkle Translation and Editing, as my main profession. No longer am I debating, like Hamlet, whether to “be or not to be”, I’ve passed the point of no return and have succumbed to both the struggles and joys of being my own boss.

This is a very special post as it marks the beginning of my business launch and unlike my previous blogs, this will be more of a freestyle piece and less academic in tone.

For years now, I have been debating what direction I want for my professional career and after several ups and downs, within the language industry and outside of it, I have finally made up my mind. Ever since finishing college, I had sought out my golden goose, a stable salaried job involving translation, which exist but are usually interpreting jobs in disguise, in addition to another office role. After landing such a role only to discover technical interpreting was not for me, I thought my translation career was over.

While I had nearly given up on pursuing my dream of being a translator, much like my on-indefinite-hold dream of being a fantasy author, for the first time in over a year it feels like I found my calling and I’ve found my passion for the language industry anew. My failures have been learning experiences. I still need professional interpreter training and more training in CAT tools; and I still need to get a proper specialization to set myself apart and market my skills. Yet by recognizing these deficiencies, I can work on them and eventually turn them into strengths. I’m both young enough that I still have time to  work on specializations/certifications in order to hone my craft while I gain more experience, and experienced enough that I have an understanding of various professional industries and have the sales/marketing and translation skills to run a freelance business.

In the last few months, I have joined many professional translation organizations; through them I’ve met so many lovely translators and interpreters and attended professional workshops and webinars to learn more about aspects of the industry. In the end, freelancing is both about writing and translation skills, but also a business and must be operated as such. I have gained insights from both established professionals and other struggling newbies about how to perfect my abilities, market myself, and perform HR activities. My list of professional development activities: readings, webinars, classes, and the like are endless and it’s exciting that I have finally have time to really sink my teeth into it. I still feel like a diamond in the rough, but I’m determined to polish my skills in order to become a successful professional translator.

So with tempered optimism, I look forward to what the future brings.

Continued Education for Translators and Editors


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.