Here’s What Being a Translator is Like, Business-wise

TayoEXE e-mailed me a little while back with some questions that I actually get all the time, so I thought I’d answer them here for easy, public reference:

Hi, I’m someone who’s interested in translation (between Japanese and English) and a member on Earthbound Central. I wanted to message you because I really like your work (such as on your Mother 3 Fan Translation) and am curious as to how you got into that type of work.

I’m only a college freshman right now, but I’m deciding on what I want to major in. I love languages, especially Japanese, and it has been a large part of my heritage and overall hobbies and interests. I’m actually going to be living in Japan for the next two years. Anyway, I was wondering, based on what I read about you being a freelance translator for a living, how you got into this work, what kind of job(s) does translation and localization entail, how much that pays, whether you work from home or somewhere else, etc. I don’t know if you’re the right person to ask, but if you know anything about those kinds of things, I would really appreciate any answers. Thanks in advance!

The big part of this question – how I got into Japanese and translation – was actually the topic for a few previous articles:

So definitely give those a read if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of the path I’ve taken over the years!

Since it sounds like you’re already interested in the language and are going to be spending a few years in Japan, you’re probably well on your way to getting really good at the language. My best advice then is to learn from everything, and, if you’re hoping to get into translation, translate a little of everything in your spare time. Try translating articles, web sites, short stories, videos, novels, manga, washing machine instructions, restaurant menus, and just anything else you can find. And try working with a bunch of different genres too. Over time you’ll gain experience and confidence and figure out what it is you excel at and prefer to work on. Who knows, maybe you’ll find you have a passion for translating Japanese advertisement slogans or something unexpected!

Types of Translators

I was pretty naive early on about how the industry works – for some reason I thought companies hired translators like they hired any other employee, you know? It IS possible to get an in-house translation job like that, but the majority of translation work (or at least the kind I’ve been involved in) is generally done as a freelance/contract employee for a company or for an agency. In all cases, you’ll probably need to pass some sort of special translation test they prepare for you, which is actually a specialized topic for another day.

For in-house jobs and freelance/contract work that you do directly for a company, usually there’s the standard sort of “send an application and resume” process. Agency work is the same, but once you’re given the OK there’s no guarantee they’ll use you for projects they receive. As a result, it’s common for translators to do work for a bunch of different agencies.

In-house translating

If you can land an in-house translator job, that’s swell! That means you’ll probably have a steady income and possibly job benefits like insurance and maybe even retirement stuff. You’ll probably also have normal working hours like most people… but maybe even more if a translation project runs long. In my experience, translation projects usually run long more than they end sooner than expected. You’ll also have the standard things like meetings, office politics, daily commutes, and traffic.

You’ll also probably get to meet a lot of new people – possibly even the people who created the stuff you’re translating! And you’ll probably get to have the final say on a lot of translation/localization choices, which is pretty cool!

Freelance translating

As a freelance/contract translator your pay will be unsteady – how much you make is entirely up to how much work you can scrounge up and how self-disciplined you are. But you won’t have to worry about office hours; you can work from home in your underwear! You can take breaks whenever you want – wanna go see the latest movie in theaters in the middle of the day when no one’s there? You can! You can can even take whole days off if you want! The amount you earn will probably be based on the actual amount of stuff you translate, though, and projects often have tight deadlines, so you can’t goof around TOO much 😛

Also, as a freelancer you’ll need to watch out for a few things. You’ll need to pay for your own health insurance plan and all that on your own. When you pay taxes you’ll have to pay more than you’d expect – there’s an added self-employment tax and a bunch of other things that eat your money up pretty quickly. Also, unlike with a normal job, when you’re self-employed YOU’RE responsible for taking the tax out of each paycheck you get, so you’ll need to set aside a big chunk of each check you get for taxes. And you’ll need to pay estimated tax payments quarterly. It hurts.

Basically, if you’re a freelance translator, expect to have a bigger bite taken out of your paycheck than you’ve ever been used to. But the good news is that you can also deduct a ton of stuff from your taxes when the time comes, so keep all your receipts and see a good tax guy!

Another nice thing about freelancing from home is that you’re free from office politics and BS and daily commutes and gas prices and meetings! But it also means you’ll have less human contact, which is why many freelancers like to visit coffee shops and the like to get some work done. Many translators also use conferences and professional organizations to make meaningful connections with others. So depending on your personality, freelancing from home might or might not be for you.


Again, a nice thing about in-house work is that you’re usually guaranteed a steady paycheck. But if you’re more adventurous and good at your work, it’s possible you could earn even more by freelancing, even with the tax stuff added in. It really depends on the kind of person you are, the amount of self-discipline and experience you have, and all that good stuff. Of course, if you freelance then you have to be prepared for the slow times… and then the flood of work that comes all at once and ohmygodthisissomuchtodoinsolittletime

Still, for the most part I’d say most translators I know (both in-house and freelance) make decent livings, somewhere right around the average national income. I don’t think you’ll necessarily get super-rich from being a translator, unless you’re REALLY good and work in really specialized fields like medicine or bioengineering or something, but you can definitely make a comfortable living as a translator!

I often hear that game and entertainment translators earn much less than those who translate in other fields. As I’ve never really left the entertainment translation field I can’t say too much about that – if anyone out there reading this can chime in with more info, let me know in the comments!

Even though this was just a super-brief and simplified look at the job side of being a translator, hopefully it helps a little bit and gets some ideas running through your head! Personally, after working as a freelancer for so many years, it’s hard for me to imagine going back to a normal 9-5 (or longer) job 😛

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  1. Can’t speak for the industry as a whole, but from what I’ve seen, “glamorous” translation like video games has a MUCH lower pay rate. For businessy things like business sales pamphlets or hotel descriptions and access info or lab reports, the going rate seems to be a pretty steady ¥4/character of source, while the only game translation work I’ve come across (generally visual novels for smartphones) paid an almost-actual-insult rate of ¥1 per. Game translation, perhaps more than any other type, REALLY pays to get an in-house position, because it seems like there are at least a couple of agencies out there willing to take advantage of naïve young Japanese majors’ willingness to put up with anything to be involved in game localization in any meaningful sense.

  2. Isn`t it better to work in-house because you then can consult and ask questions to the game developers. and what kind of office politics and BS where you talking about?

    1. Sure, although being in-house doesn’t 100% mean you’ll have that sort of relationship with content creators – you could be an in-house translator for an agency that outsources excess work, for example. In that situation, you probably wouldn’t have any more access to the creators than a freelancer.

      Office politics are just a part of any job. Office gossip, conflicting personalities, high school-level behavior, stuff like that.

  3. What prerequisites does translation work usually look for?

    One time, I tried applying for Japanese/English translation at some company based in India. They gave me a translation test, and they said I passed it… only to later come around and e-mail me again saying that, after a second look at my resume, they noticed that I don’t have a Bachelor’s and I’m still going through college. Like, what the fuck? They got proof of my skills right in front of them, and they’re going to let some god damn piece of paper dictate whether or not I should be hired? It’s stuff like which makes me think the whole education system just doesn’t work and essentially boils down to some sick, pointless waiting game of already-qualified potential workers just sitting through semesters… but I digress. Does anyone out there look for actual skill, or are they all adhering to the college degree nonsense?

    1. Well, since I’ve only had to make the leap once and have never been on the hiring side I can’t say for sure. I can understand the employer’s worries, but on the other hand I agree that a diploma (at least in this field) doesn’t mean as much as it seems.

      I think what you can expect is that if someone who’s doing the hiring isn’t a translator themselves, they don’t know what to look for other than diploma + resume + trial test results. So if someone is missing some of those, it’s understandable that the HR guys would think things are iffy.

      If a fellow translator is doing the actual hiring, it might be a slightly different story, though. At least that’s my personal take on it – although the person in question would need to show complete competency/skill.

      I guess it’s sort of a luck of the draw thing :/

  4. hey, I’ve been learning Japanese and would ultimately love to be able to move there and work as a translator but i don’t have a college degree, due to family circumstances and then money issues. Is it possible to still do it or am i basically crap outta luck?

    1. I’ve met some self-taught people in my time, so it’s definitely possible, but you really, REALLY have to be able to prove your skill, so you’d need to study extremely hard and really hone your skills. Even then it might be tough to get through the hiring process, it should still be possible.


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