Learning Japanese & Becoming a Translator

I regularly get questions about how to get into studying Japanese or how to get into the Japanese->English translation field, and I always tell myself, “Man, I really need to write up a big article on the subject someday!”

…Except I’ve never actually gotten around to it after all these years, so instead I think I’ll post little mini-articles and Q&As about it from time to time. So although it strays a little bit from the topic of game localization, hopefully it’ll still be useful and insightful for a lot of readers. At the very least I hope it’ll help push people toward localization-related careers.

To kick things off, here are two e-mails I received just today!

Dear Mato,

I wanted to become a Japanese translator and video game designer when I’m older (currently learning the Ruby language), and I was wondering, how did you learn Japanese? Did you learn when you were very young, did you train yourself or did you have a tutor, things like that. I’ve been very inspired by your work!

My dream job is to work at ATLUS, but we all know that will never happen…..

I’ve actually gotten this question a lot over the years, enough that I did actually write something up! It’s only the first part, but if you genuinely want to learn and get good at Japanese, check it out:

Even if you don’t care about the Japanese language, you might want to give it a read anyway; I’ve gotten comments from people who said they found it inspirational anyway. I really do need to get around to writing Part 2 someday, though…

As for me, I pretty much started studying when I was around 16 or so. I randomly found a Japanese language textbook in the not-so-local library. Even though it was meant for second year students of Japanese, I had a lot of fun trying to decipher the writing. I then taught myself for a little while, then eventually I started studying it at the not-so-local university during my high school summer breaks. Later on, after I’d been in college for a few years, I started studying the language again, then spent a year in Japan soaking in the language, then came back and finished my degree. That’s the quick version – there’s a little more info in the old Gamasutra interview I did.

Basically, just try to follow the stuff in the page I linked to above and you should be on your way! The language isn’t that hard to learn, it just takes a lot of time. So don’t let the thought of “man, this is so hard, I can’t do it” get to you. If you can ignore that thought, you’ll master the language – and translation – in no time!

The next e-mail I got actually fits nicely in with the first e-mail:

Hello! I don’t know if you remember the last time I sent an email, but I just asked what being a translator was like. Well, I’m really into Japanese, and I really do want to be a translator because I think it’s one of the most fun tings to do. The problem is, I don’t really know how to become one.

I’ve heard that majoring in Japanese, or any language for that matter, is generally a bad idea. Based on what I know, that’s because translators don’t need a specific degree, it just has to be a four-year degree. You’d be better off having a degree in another, most stable field, and then doing translating if you get the chance.

So I guess I just want to ask, how did you become a translator? Is there a general path you have to take?

I’m pretty sure I’ll have to live in Japan for at least a year or two before I can become fluent enough for most translation, and I was really hoping to find some type of scholarship to get me over there. Assuming you’ve been over there for a while, how did you get over there? I’ve heard it’s hard for foreigners to get work in Japan outside of teaching English. I don’t mind teaching or anything, I just don’t want to have limited options and then end up financially unstable, or even kicked out of the country!

I appreciate you for reading this message and helping me decide on many things! Also, keep up on the interesting stuff! I’m glad Entei, Suicune, and Raikou are called the Legendary Dogs in Japan, because that’s what I’ve always called them, myself. 🙂

Yeah, I really, really need to write Part 2 of my article sometime – it’ll cover the topic of actually getting translation work and how to be a translator. Maybe I should just write the article here on Legends of Localization sometime 😛

Majoring in a language with no idea how you’re going to use your degree after graduation is probably a bad idea – but you could probably say that about ANY major, except for maybe things like engineering and applied sciences. If you want to be a translator, then it seems silly NOT to major in a language. You don’t NEED a degree to be a translator, but it helps recruiters take you seriously and, more than anything, gives you a knowledge foundation to work with.

While it’s true that you could teach yourself the language all by yourself and become competent at the language enough to be a translator, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a really, really hard worker and/or really, really smart. What I recommend for most people instead is studying the language in a school setting but ALSO studying on their own, since school alone isn’t nearly enough.

If you can swing it, I would suggest double majoring – one in the language and one in whatever other field you want to get into. I can’t offer much advice about this, but you could also consider majoring in a language and minoring in the field of interest. Or the other way around. That’s what I hear a lot of language students do, so it might be worth considering.

Spending time in Japan is unbelievably important. Obviously it’s not cheap, but the short time I spent there upped my skills a million-fold. I had to take out a huge bank loan to pay for it, but I recommend seeing if your college or other nearby colleges have sister schools in Japan and/or exchange programs. You should also meet your counselor/student advisor for scholarship info or suggestions. And check around online too, of course. Scholarships are a huge topic of their own, so maybe that’s for another day or site 😛

In my case, things went like this:

  • Got interested in Japanese as a teenager for whatever reason
  • Randomly found a book in a library one summer
  • Tried to teach myself slowly using other crappy little phrasebooks
  • Took college classes during high school summer break
  • Eventually took more college classes a few years later
  • Studied in Japan a year
  • Did the JLPT level 2
  • Came back, worked on lots of fan translations and other translations, finished Japanese degree
  • Tried applying to various game companies as a translator, got nowhere
  • Tried starting my own tiny translation company without knowing what the heck I was doing
  • Got hired by FUNimation a few months after graduation
  • Finally got around to doing the JLPT level 1 for personal satisfaction

And now it’s been… 11? 12? years since then.

In my case, I did get a degree in Japanese and although having it wasn’t some mega huge help, I do think it would’ve been harder to get a job right off the bat without it. Being able to pass translation tests is what most companies and agencies really look for, though, since most recruiters don’t necessarily know the language themselves.

Anyway, besides the basic school work, I also did a ton of unofficial video game translations, an unofficial novel translation, etc. to build up the knowledge and experience I’d need in the job world. I’d say that besides living in Japan, translating the novel was the next huge step for me, so it’s another thing I highly recommend – find a Japanese novel you like someday and then translate it! It’s a lot of work, but you’ll learn so much 😯

So I guess consider the degree as sort of the “wrapping paper” of your skills – it’s what the outside world will see at first, but what matters most is the actual stuff (experience, skills, etc.) on the inside. You can get by on just your experience and skills, but you also gotta make sure you market yourself properly.

Finances are a big topic that can vary from person to person, and since I don’t work and live in Japan I can’t really comment on how that would fare. Maybe some commenters can offer some more info and advice though. Teaching in Japan is another big topic too, and although it probably doesn’t belong on this site, I’m sure the topic will sneak into future updates like this somehow. I almost got into teaching English in Japan right out of college too, plus some of my translation buddies live in Japan as English teachers, so in a way I see all this stuff as interconnected.

Hopefully that helps somewhat – I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic. I need to sit down, organize my thoughts, simplify it all, and then write up a really useful, helpful, easy-to-understand guide. I’m hoping that by writing these smaller updates right now that it’ll push me in that direction. And if I end up writing too many of these articles, maybe I’ll start yet another new site to run, like Mato’s Japanese Palace or something 😛

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  1. Great post, Mato! I have to say, I was initially inspired by your original “How to be a Translator” post a few years back, and I just graduated with a Japanese degree. I do practice translating occasionally and I’d like to get into it professionally, but I’m worried I’m still not fluent enough. Did you feel like you were really super fluent when you got started professionally, or did you feel like you still had more to learn?

    1. Oh man, even to this day I don’t feel the word “fluent” applies to me. I think as a language learner/professional it’s just how it is for everyone – like you’re eternally “catching up” to where you would be if you had been born a native of whatever country.

      The best way to get better at the language is to keep reading/watching/hearing/talking as much as possible, and the best way to get better at translation is to translate everything you can and try to analyze other people’s translations as much as you can.

  2. I was hoping you would put up some info about this kind of stuff! I’d like to learn Japanese too, if only because it’s interesting. I’ve learned a bit about the language by watching subbed animes and reading your comparisons, although it’s mostly just grammar and simple phrases (the politeness level, for example, as well as the name suffixes like -san, -kun, etc.). I’m hoping I can find a college with Japanese courses; I’d be all over that.

    Though, I can’t help but feel a little cheated, since in Japan they learn some English along with Japanese, but all we have is plain old English, which in itself is pretty screwy if you ask me. I should get around to memorizing the hiragana and katakana; I only remember a select few of them, mostly the ones that comprise my name.

    1. I’m pretty much exactly the same as you describe here. My local colleges don’t offer Japanese courses, though. I can read most of the Hiragana by now, but Katakana has always been my bane. I can only recognize about five of them immediately. But it’s so cool when I’m playing, for instance, a Japan-only video game and to actually be able to read and understand some of the sentences!

      How’s that Mother 1+2 translation coming along? I offered to help about a year and a half back, but I never did get anywhere with that. xD It seemed like it was just kinda frozen in time ever since that one dude left who was trying to learn C++ to make a text inserter program fore the VWF… ROM hacking is seriously not my forte, but all I can say is that I at least know a thing or two about it. :p

      1. Yeah, it’s been basically frozen for a year now. The translator hasn’t sent in anything new, and I’ve been busy with other stuff. And, I’ll admit it, I’ve been a little on the lazy side 😛 The only choice at this point is to take the dialogue from EarthBound and re-write it according to Mato’s comparison, but that might complicate things later on since I ultimately want it all translated from-scratch.

        Probably shouldn’t talk a lot about that here, best if you took it to the forums. 😛

    2. Yeah, I can sympathize, although I’m also really glad I already know English, as it means I can understand the majority of Japanese’s loan words by default.

      You can seriously learn all the kana in just a few days – it’s not that hard at all. Sit down and study for a few hours each day for a week and you’ll pick it up in no time!

      1. I should do that. I have LOADS of free time in my classes (you wouldn’t believe how long I sit and do nothing each day; it’s at least an hour, if not more), so that would be a good way to use that time.

        Learning all those kanji is going to be the real kicker, though. There’s like, what, hundreds maybe thousands of kanji, versus our 26 letter alphabet? Sheesh.

        I’m taking Spanish right now too, so hopefully learning two new languages at once won’t overload my brain. 😛

    1. I’m glad to hear that – I’ve often wanted to post about this sort of thing but I always held back because it seemed a bit off-topic.

    1. I was half-joking about it but for years I’ve wanted to make a Japanese tutorial site/book/resource/game that simplifies everything, talks in normal people speak, addresses issues from the students’ standpoint, and tries to avoid the pitfalls I ran into during my own studies.

      …But you know me, so little time. My old laser-sharp focus is now scattered in every which direction 🙁

  3. “Got hired by FUNimation a few months after graduation”

    Wow, that must have been cool. Did you work on any particular anime with them?

    I’m an English teacher myself, but I never got to teach overseas in Japan unfortunately. I tried to get into the JET program twice and AEON once, but for some reason I was never considered “good enough”. I could tell I needed more training as a teacher, but years later, I just ended up teaching here in the States. I’ve also heard that since 2009, they’ve been cutting down on native teachers since from overseas; they’re just getting better textbooks over in Japan to teach English with. In a way, I guess my dream to teach over there was deferred.

    1. Yeah, getting into JET is a little more competitive, especially these days I hear. I tried AEON once, got to the second round but didn’t do so hot with the interview so I didn’t make it. Man, my life would be VERY different now if I’d gotten a job with them 😯

      I do have a list of my professional translations here, although it’s usually a bit outdated: http://matotree.com/translations/

      1. Mine too. I imagine I’d probably be a lot more versed in Japanese than I am now and have a better rep to my name.

        Dude, that’s awesome. You’ve worked on a ton of stuff on that list I’ve fully watched or I’m currently watching. Epic!

    2. For what it’s worth, JET is trying to do something like double its participants over the next year or two, which is shocking. Probably super worth looking into again. 🙂

  4. For a while I was using that Rosetta Stone program to learn, but I couldn’t get myself to keep on booting it up. It was just such a boring thing to do… However, it worked out pretty well for what I was learning. Rosetta Stone teaches you a language the way a child learns a language, by seeing and hearing, not by being given a Japanese word and then the English counterpart, which is how many universities do it.

    As for the results, I feel I’ve mastered the few words I was exposed to while I used it. It basically taught me the difference between children and adult, and, as a result, the difference between referring to male and female (Onna no ko, otoko no hito, etc). I also learned the words for water, run and juice (That one’s not so hard, is it?). While learning “water” and “juice”, I also managed to pick up on the word for “drink”. This whole time, though, I was never given a translation of these things, just a picture of someone DOING said thing and then a phrase telling me what that person was doing in Japanese.

    I guess the reason I say all this is, I wonder what your opinion on this approach is, Mato? If you had learned that way, do you think you would be more fluent? This is something that’s always bothered me about the way Rosetta Stone goes about it, and I wondered what a professional who has already mastered the language the traditional way thought about it. I know you don’t have a lot of time, but I’d love to discuss this with you.

    1. I’ve never used it or really even seen it, but that does sound like a really good way to learn a language – by internalizing it and avoiding the crutch of one’s native language. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve studied Japanese for years but always continue to think their sentences out in English before trying to say something in Japanese. I think if you go down that path, you’ll only get so far. You gotta get the language deep into your bones and your brain!

      That’s why actually going to Japan is so great – you’re bombarded by raw experiences, words, and situations and don’t have your native language standing in the way.

      I’ve already internalized the language enough that I don’t think I’d be any different if I’d done Rosetta Stone when I first started (I don’t think it even existed though), but it definitely sounds like a great way to start from scratch.

      1. When I first heard of the program, it was marketed almost exclusively to travelling business people who needed to learn a language quickly. Kinda makes sense, considering rich business people are the only ones who can really afford the price tag they put on it. Even so, the way it goes about doing things makes sense.

        Ah, I figured as much. I really want to visit Japan some time, not only to see the sights, but also to test and update my skills with the language. At current, the only thing I can do with it is talk to a Japanese co-worker I know, and he prefers to speak English because he’s trying to learn it better himself. xD I’d love to see how much of the lines I picked up from anime are the real deal and how much of it is just dramatic speech that I’ll never use in real life, you know?

  5. Thanks for the post! I could never “go pro” with my level of Japanese knowledge, but this is certainly a good anecdotal reference for those who are interested in entering the translating field. Although now I’m curious about something…am I allowed to ask about the pink buses or not? ^^;

    1. Haha, the pink bus stuff.

      Well, if you know me, you know that I have a weird sense of humor and try not to take things too seriously. I like to put a goofy spin on everything, basically.

      So at the school I studied at in Japan, every semester there’s a sort of “speech fair” where all the exchange students have to give a speech or presentation in Japanese, to show how much they’ve improved. Ordinary speeches are about people’s experiences in Japan, how their time in Japan changed their lives, how they find Japan beautiful, how they bonded with their host families, etc. That’s okay and all, but it’s boring to me, so one semester I did a presentation on, “What if Japan became the 51st state of the United States?” It was pretty wacky and it got the audience’s attention. One person even asked if what if American became Japan’s 48th (or whatever #) prefecture and even with my mediocre Japanese skills everyone had a good laugh.

      The next semester I threw together my presentation at the very last minute and made my teachers mad at me by not taking it seriously. My topic was something about “Watch out for Pink Buses!”, just some random thing for no reason. I filled it with weird nonsense and jokes and a goofy slideshow. It got a lot of laughs even though it made no sense, and in hindsight I think it had a very Japanese comedy vibe to it. At the very least I learned more about Japanese comedic timing 😛

      Afterward, some audience members came up and asked me about what the heck I was talking about (I guess I said pink buses were the scourge of society and we needed to make me prime minister to get rid of them because they have special atoms that destroy stuff?) and I said it was meant to be taken as a metaphor for any issue you can think of. This got a good reaction from everyone, including my teachers, even though it was a BS answer.

      Years later, I visited the school and saw some of my old teachers, and they were like, “Oh yeah, you did that pink bus presentation! People still talk about it sometimes!” Which was kind of surprising.

      So that’s the story of the pink bus thing. It was basically a last-minute project that wasn’t very good at all but somehow stood out just enough to be slightly memorable.

  6. Mato

    Aside from the things you can understand if you know Japanese when you look back now do you ever think it was perhaps better to learn another language. if you consider how long and incredibly difficult it is to learn it. Do you think that Japanese is a better language then English? I myself want to learn another language (I know only Dutch and English) and think that learning Japanese is to much trouble to be worthwhile. Especially if you see what some other fairly reliable sources say about Japanese. Your article gives also the impression that to work as a translator you have to have a high education is that really true?



    I also have another question. I think that most people know that there are certain words and phrases in Japanese that can`t be really translated in to english but are there English words and phrases that can`t be really translated into Japanese? I was curious about that for a while.

    1. Oh man, this is such a deep and interesting question that I think I’ll make a post about it at some point rather than leave it hidden in the comments. It might take me a bit of time, but I’ll definitely post a full answer at some point!

      For now, the quick answer is that learning Japanese isn’t hard, it just takes time. You don’t need a higher education to become a translator, but you’ll need to get a lot of experience and skill. Most translation agencies mostly care that you have experience, skill, and can pass their translation tests, but without a college/university degree they might be wary of giving you a translation test to begin with. Experience FAR outshines schooling, though, so if you can get your foot in the door it shouldn’t be tough to get taken seriously after that.

      I think which language you learn should depend on what you want to do with it rather than “I want to learn a new language”. Does Japanese culture, history, art, entertainment, etc. interest you? Then I’d say yes, consider learning Japanese. Otherwise, consider other languages, but ask the same question about them too. Hopefully you’ll find one that suits your interests and goals!

      And yeah, English has plenty of words and phrases that don’t work well in translation. I think every language will have things like that. I don’t usually do English->Japanese translations so I can’t offer any examples off the top of my head, but I know they exist. I’ll do some research and have some examples when I do a full post someday!

      1. What do you think of the links in my first comment? To which extent are they true in your experience. I would also like it you would gave me a quick answer to the question what is the best language: English or Japanese? I also find it funny that your advice on considering Japanese could be interpreted as “if you like Legend of Zelda you should consider learning Japanese“.

        (If you are interested there are 2 words that can`t be really translated into Dutch: Sibling and Peasant).

        1. If given the chance to learn English or to learn Japanese, I’d point to English simply because it’s the current lingua franca and can be useful for many more things. I don’t think any language is the “best” language though.

          Keigo and politeness levels are complicated and not even native speakers get them right 100% of the time. But it’s not as bad as a lot of people/sites say. Every language has its weird, complicated, almost arbitrary stuff that just takes time to learn. Keigo is one of those things.

  7. I don’t think i could ever be a professional translator for any language, but i’ve always thought any other language besides english was neet, and the idea of being able to speak even just a little is always a fun little side-interest of mine. I took three years of German back in High School. Then in college i self-studied a bit of Quenya for a bit, and then when i started really getting into anime and manga, i started taking an interest in Japanese. I always liked how the old issues of the (now defunct) US Shonen Jump magazine would have a monthly Japanese lesson article. So yeah, i don’t think i could ever be totally fluent or anything, but i always enjoy picking up a few words and phrases here and there, and getting a bit of an understanding of what they mean.

  8. Yo, Mato! I’ve actually been meaning to ask you this for some time, and this seems like a somewhat appropriate place for it: Has the fact that you’ve participated in technically-not-entirely-legal fan translations and the like ever caused problems for you professionally? I notice that those projects aren’t listed on your resume (unless the resume I’ve got in mind is super old, which is certainly possible), but are listed on your plain-for-all-to-see personal website.

    I ask partially because a decent portion of the amateur VA work I’ve been getting has been in fandubs and other fan projects.

  9. I only stumbled across this website today… such wonderful articles all around –I have a lot of catching up to do! I’m an aspiring J->E localizer/translator and am aiming to take the N2 next week! Studied abroad in Japan in my third Uni year, and have been studying a total of 5 years since freshman year of University.

    As expected, I have been having a terrible time in my current job search, I assume it will not really lead to anything until I get some sort of certificate to boost my standing –so I continue to study on my own and have been translating various video game art books, Pokemon cards, etc on my wordpress blog…

    Reading the above article has given me new hope that I wasn’t the only one in this situation at some point, and could relate easily as we shared many similarities in our journey, though of course you have years more experience than me!

    I look forward to reading more of your articles and hope to be able to do a similar thing in the future. 🙂 Thanks a lot for this!


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