How to Get Good

November 2003; UPDATED June 2012

Originally compiled as part of SWET’s “Over Their Shoulders” column, this article taps a variety of SWET translators to offer their advice on how to build and maintain one’s skills: how to get good. Every translator has a different niche and clientele, so these seven good translators are just a first sample, presented for your consideration. Readers of this article who have something new to add or would like to update or expand on the variety here, please send your thoughts to info[at] and let other SWET members look “over your shoulder.”


Medical Translation

by J. Patrick Barron

First of all, you have to be proficient at getting information via the Internet. It is essential to know sources of reliable information, such as the PubMed database, and how to use them effectively. Secondly, you have to know what tools are available. For example, there are many kiyaku, or classifications, for various organs, which specify the various histological, radiological, and clinical definitions and the staging of diseases. These are published as a series by Kanehara Shuppan, Tokyo, and often definitions are given in English. Because the Japanese staging classifications and so on are not always accepted or known in the West, it is also necessary to understand the review articles on the same subject in the Western literature in leading journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and British Medical Journal. A good selection of medical dictionaries and glossaries, in both print and digital formats, is also indispensable. At the very least, Stedman’s English-Japanese-English Medical Dictionary and Stedman’s Abbreviations, Acronyms & Symbols, both published on CD-ROM by French and European Publications, are a must for any medical translator.

However, what helped me more than anything else was the opportunity to go to many medical congresses dealing with the subjects that I was translating, especially many meetings that were closed to the general public and were by invitation only for the top-ranking people in the United States and Japan, in the field of lung cancer, for example. I think I derived great benefit from listening to eminent people, not only in the conference room talking about radiology, chemotherapy, surgery, and all other aspects of lung cancer but also afterward over the dinner table. That is how one gets a ‘living’ grasp of what terminology is being used and why some people prefer some words and others prefer other words. For example, lung cancer, a term that we all know, can also be identified as pulmonary carcinoma, carcinoma of the lung, or bronchogenic carcinoma, to cite only a few. In fact, these terms also go through periods of fashion. For the last few years usage had swung back to lung cancer, but bronchogenic carcinoma seems to be coming back into vogue. A good translator has to be aware of what is being used by the medical community at the time.

One can learn not only through having done translations but also by helping someone who has submitted a paper with the comments from the reviewers. A translation may be absolutely perfect, but there will be aspects that the author will not have considered, and it is these that are pointed out by the reviewers. Through working on these comments, you really learn and find out what you should or should not do the next time.

In my mind, a combination of working with good mentors, having access to congresses, and having access to comments from reviewers is essential to improvement as a translator in the field of medicine.

The best way to obtain this kind of experience is by working as a translator/editor at a medical communications center, such as that at Tokyo Medical University, which assists the institution’s researchers and physicians in getting their papers accepted for publication. In recent months, a number of Japanese institutions have expressed interest in establishing such an in-house service, and many more are expected to follow suit. This will create opportunities for medical translators/editors who wish to be affiliated with a medical institution.

© 2003 J. Patrick Barron

Non-technical Translation

by Beth Cary

Having tried various ways of translating various types of nontechnical Japanese writing, I have recently come upon a workable—as opposed to an ideal—method. My “manual laptop” consists of a loose-leaf notebook for half-size pages (B5, 182 mm × 257 mm). It has a plastic cover with an inside pocket large enough for either a bunkobon-size (A6, 105 mm × 148 mm) paperback or photocopied pages of the original text. This I can carry with me anywhere, and in those odd free or dead-time moments I can do a few pages.

I find that doing the first draft by hand frees me from the technological encumbrances of highlighting, cutting and pasting, dragging and dropping, deleting and inserting that working on the screen can present. Also a minimal reliance on the dictionary while using my “manual laptop” keeps my rhythm going. The draft I input then becomes version 1.5, at which point I look up necessary words and mull over the best usage.

Another recent revelation was gained through copyediting a book. Helping to make another person’s writing smoothly intelligible gave me an awareness of which kinds of phrasings work and which are awkward. Careful attention to consistency, punctuation, and style of citation pays off in time saved during later revisions. Of course, for my own writing I seek comments from “ghost” editors.

Time is the single most important element in “getting good.” One needs time on a daily basis to get in tune with the mentality of the original author and become focused on the work. One also needs time to set aside the draft for a while before the major task of rereading, rewriting, reworking, and revising needed to produce a good translation.

© 2003 Beth Cary


Develop Your Own Complex Skill Set

by Dan Kanagy

How do you become good at translation? Practice will get you there. In fact, there is no other way. To translate well means having a complex skill set available to you. You need to have a deep understanding of Japanese. And of English. And a deep understanding of the subject you are translating. You also need to write well in your target language. This is not a skill set you acquire in a day. You need to work at it. The good news is that practice will make a great difference. Few of us are geniuses, but even those of us with average talents can make great strides simply through repeated practice.

Another way of making this point is to say that experience will get you there. And how do you acquire experience? Not by merely waiting for time to pass. Experience grows out of daily practice. What you need to do is develop daily work habits that over time will augment and expand your translation skill set.

I can mention a number of relatively self-evident practices. Read well-edited prose in both your source and target languages. You should read both in your fields of specialization and more broadly. Doing so will train your ear.

Plan your schedule to give you time to learn. If you fill your schedule to 100 percent capacity, you will have no time to do research, no time for dealing with surprises, and no time to accommodate short, rush jobs from a favored client. But if you fill your schedule to 80 percent capacity, you will have a margin of flexibility to do all of the above. You will be able to work toward achieving both your short-term goal (delivering the current job on time) and your long-term goal (becoming a better translator).

Rewrite your translations. All good writers rewrite. Don’t expect your first draft to be finished prose.

Always work to the best of your ability. If this becomes your daily practice, you can be confident that you are accumulating the experience that will make you a better translator. You will be developing your skill set. If you don’t do this, you have by default defined how far you will grow as a translator.

Accurate self-assessment will be important in developing your skill set. Learn to become objective about your work. (Revisiting your work three months or a year later is one way to provide the needed distance.) Overvaluing or undervaluing your work will be counterproductive, since in both cases you will be misdiagnosing what you need to do better. Accurate self-assessment is very difficult. Here again, practice will get you a long way toward this goal.

Finally, there is what may be a counterintuitive task. You will need to relearn your mother tongue. For most of us, the knowledge we have of our mother tongue is filled with many holes. These holes need to be plugged. There is the idiolect problem. The language we commonly use is only a subset of our mother tongue. Our vocabulary is in most cases learned haphazardly through limited context and insufficient samples. Our mother tongue is much broader than our limited experience. Here, I recommend developing a sensitivity to what you don’t know. Learn to query and doubt your knowledge. When you choose words, is your choice based on the fact that it merely sounds right, or is it based on sure knowledge of accepted practice? Once you start examining your work this way, you will be surprised how unreliable this sense of what sounds right can be. Look upon dictionaries as your friends. Usage manuals, too. Refer to them to develop a broader understanding of your mother tongue. This process of relearning your mother tongue won’t be accomplished in a day. But if you keep at it you will eventually reach the point of knowing that what sounds right to you is also supported by accepted practice. You will have trained this sense into something more reliable.

A brief comment on good writing. It’s not the individual sentences that are so difficult. What is difficult is getting to the next sentence without losing the reader. If you can accomplish this in a seemingly effortless way, you will carry the reader with you to the final period in the document. Good writing always takes effort, but the effort shouldn’t show.

Perhaps what I describe sounds daunting to you. But remember this: everyone starts from zero. Over time, what will determine whether you stay at zero or develop the skill set you need is your daily practice.

© 2003 Dan Kanagy


Diversify—Specialization Is for Insects

by Edward Lipsett

“How to get good,” it says... not the greatest title I’ve seen in my life, but it’s what I was assigned, so I guess I’ll have to work with it. After all, ‘the customer is god,’ right.

I imagine others asked this question are going to talk about the proper care and feeding of customers, the need for aggressive marketing, and diverse software to help you get whatever it is done faster. All that will help you work more efficiently but won’t have much effect on what you churn out. The theme here is how to improve yourself, not make the best of what you’ve got.

I think the single most important element was summed up very neatly by Robert Heinlein: “Specialization is for insects.” Yes, I can hear some specialist’s eyebrows ratcheting up already. Sure, specialization is a crucial part of cutting out a market niche and establishing yourself as an “authority” in your chosen field. This is a tried-and-true way to be more selective about the type of work you do and to charge more for it.

Unless you are in a very small minority of translators, however, face it: you can’t afford to be too selective. If you understand, oh, zymurgy, for example (a favorite subject of mine, especially field testing), then you will be able to translate work in the field faster and better than your competitors, which means your yen-per-hour income rises, which means you can afford to spend more time doing what you want to. But how many customers are there in the field? Are there really enough to keep you busy every day? And assuming there are, will you really be happy translating similar material day-in, day-out for the rest of your life?

I thought the answers were pretty clear when I founded my company and really hated to get jobs like translating Valentine’s Day chocolate packaging, birth certificates, fire-alarm manuals, instructions for raising geckoes, and whatnot. But the facts are that (1) the people who give you work in a field that you know will, eventually, ask you to do something you don’t know; (2) the more potential jobs you turn down, the better your chance of getting a reputation as a prima donna; and (3) learning new things keeps you awake and interested. Most of the time.

So, I repeat. Specialization is for insects.

You don’t want a narrow field of specialization as your sole marketable competency. You want depth in a small range of fields and a working understanding of everything under the sun. Zymurgy is great, but eventually one of the manufacturers in that field is going to ask about gengineering, and you should already have a general understanding. Or a pressure vessel used in manufacturing: now what in the world is SUS?*

If you are even somewhat aware of untouched (by you) fields, you will already have some scattered terminology and a general understanding floating somewhere behind your eyeballs and (with luck, planning, and good organization) already know where to go looking for more detailed information on whatever it is. Being able to find that information and make sense out of source text in a field you know too little about will save your, uh, posterior when push comes to shove.

So, in addition to staying abreast in your chosen field (and yes, you should try to become an expert in something), you should also make time to read through general publications of all sorts. Be brave; try things you’ve never heard of. I find publications like Science Magazine, IEEE Spectrum, The Economist, and The Journal of Electronic Defense fascinating. My hobbies (such as I have time for, between being a husband, publisher, and dog walker as well as a translator) are totally unrelated to either electronics or translation but require their own research.

You want to be a better translator? Learn to be a better auto mechanic first. Or surgeon. Or lawyer. Or a little of everything.

By Edward Lipsett, and released by author to the public domain

* Stainless steel


Collaborate, Be Patient, Reach Out

by Lynne E. Riggs

A deep respect for Japanese as a language and willingness to utilize the collaborative approach are keys to success in J-E translation. Working directly and constantly with a team made up of an English-native editor and a Japanese-native translator/editor can help a translator more positively and creatively deal with the complexities involved and craft a more satisfying product. Working with others in varying degrees of collaboration is common. Shaping a close-knit and effective team, nurturing the complex interplay of skills needed, and finding the right chemistry of personality and professionalism is time-consuming and hard to achieve. It helps to be patient and not give up midway.

Editing and checking the translations of others, one often encounters in a draft such bracketed comments as “doesn’t make sense!” “illogical,” “can’t understand what this means,” or even “nonsense!” and similar expressions of frustration, ire, and indignation over the Japanese text. One imagines the rolled eyes, the gnashed teeth, the futile flipping through dictionaries, and the abandoned keyboard. The Japanese has been read seriously and an attempt at comprehension made, but then judged to be flawed in terms of logic or sense because it does not easily give up its meaning. Often understanding is difficult even if with native-Japanese speaker facility in the language.

The task, however, really begins here. The linguistic and cultural complexities that spark such ire are irrefutably there. The task is to really comprehend them. There are positive and fruitful methods of unraveling the puzzle, shedding light on what seems at first murky, or choosing from a range of possible intents and meanings. But you cannot do it alone or without profound knowledge of Japanese culture and forms of expression (or nonexpression). If you need more help, more context, more insight, you must find it, and only if you can find it, can you go on, and on, growing and deepening your experience and professionalism as a translator. The secret is a matter of attitude.

© 2003 Lynne E. Riggs


Read, Read, Read

by Fred Uleman

Once you understand what translation entails, it is not that difficult to figure out what you need to do to get good. Doing it is the hard part.

In essence, translation is a process of expressing the source text in the target language. If we are talking about Japanese-to-English translation, for example, you have to understand what the Japanese text says and express it in English.

Obviously, it is not enough simply to be reasonably proficient in Japanese. Understanding the source text is more than a language problem and also involves understanding the field it is about. If you are doing medical texts, you have to understand the material well enough to mentally fill in the blanks and connect all the dots. If you are doing political material, you have to understand not only what the person is saying but why he is saying is, since the why often informs the what. You have to be at least as knowledgeable about the field as the target audience that the author is writing for. This may well mean you have to read even when it is not for translation. So be it.

Then, once you truly understand the source text, you have to write it in English. Not just any English, but good English of the sort that people in that field write. Doctors, lawyers, and probably even Indian chiefs have their own styles. So do government bureaucrats, theoretical economists, and marketing professionals. And you have to write in the style of the field because your output will not have surface credibility—readers will dismiss it out of hand—if you do not. If you are doing a bureaucratic report, it has to read like a bureaucratic report, not a movie review. To change the style is to change the packaging and hence the content.

In order to write well in English, you need to read prolifically in English. Read, read, and read. That is how writers get good, and translators are writers in disguise. Read to keep your ear in tune, because if you do not, you run the risk of slipping into a wooden translation in which the words are English but the sentence structure is Japanese. You run the risk of producing leaden translations that do not have the verve of real English—even though the source texts had verve and were not particularly dull Japanese. Just as you do not want to introduce new ideas, you do not want to introduce awkwardness. Your translation should read just as smoothly in/as English as the source text does in/as Japanese.

So read widely in your fields in Japanese. Read widely in your fields (and even out of your fields) in English. And then do for your clients as they would do for themselves if they could.

© 2003 Fred Uleman


A Lazy Man’s Road

by Jeremy Whipple

I’m a lazy man. So what I write here surely won’t apply to most of you. Also, I’m just going to touch on some elementary (and perhaps obvious) points. If that doesn’t discourage you, read on. Can a lazy man/woman be a good translator? Maybe. I believe I’ve become fairly good myself. And, beyond the initial struggle to learn the basics of Japanese, I’ve devoted little conscious effort to the process. After studying the language in college, I came to Japan and have lived here ever since. Personally I can’t imagine learning enough Japanese to translate well while living outside of Japan. Hence Whipple’s First Rule (for the lazy-but-wants-to-be-good translator):

1. Live in Japan

This is definitely worth some effort up front. And once you’re here, getting a regular job in a Japanese organization certainly wouldn’t hurt. I worked at a life insurance company for eleven years and learned a tremendous amount in the process. Probably learned most of it in the first five years, but I got comfortable, and being lazy…

Try to learn to speak Japanese well. This will be easier if you can avoid hanging out with other gaijin for a couple of years. I believe a strong knowledge of spoken Japanese is a tremendous asset for the J-E translator. When I edit other people’s translations, I often find cases where they got flummoxed because the author threw in something colloquial. Not just that, but when you have a complex sentence, particularly one where the author has mixed himself up, it’s usually a lot easier to ‘hear’ it as if spoken and take it from there than to pull it apart and try to solve it like a puzzle.

Obviously a crucial part of being a good (and reasonably quick) translator is acquiring and retaining tremendous amounts of relevant information. How can a lazy (wo)man manage this? By being interested in the stuff (s)he needs to know. When you’re interested in something, you pick up knowledge about it with little or no effort. Hence Whipple’s Second Rule:

2. Be interested.

You may have to work a bit to develop some new interests, but again, it’s worth it, and it can be done—hey, I even managed to get interested in life insurance and Japanese politics! By extension, it can help to get hooked on a trendy TV series or immerse yourself in a manga series. Maybe you can’t get a job at a Japanese company or live with a Japanese family, but TV and comics can expose you to these worlds (and others you wouldn’t even think of experiencing directly). Developing a mild crush on a Japanese performer can help too. Finally, Whipple’s Third Rule:

3. Know English.

Lazy or not, a good translator must learn to write his/her native language well. So you’d better be or become interested in English, including the finer points of grammar and style. Enjoy it enough and you might get good!

© 2003 Jeremy Whipple

Originally published in the SWET Newsletter No. 103 (November 2003), pp. 15-22.