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!
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 😛