Senpai Success Story #7: Nicole, the Freelance Translator

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

There’s something to be said about a job that allows you to work in your pajamas every day of the week. For me, that something is, “SIGN ME UP.” 

Oh, wait. I already am.

Anyway, hi! I’m Nicole, and here’s a little bit about me:

  • I’ve never set foot in a Japanese classroom (online or off).
  • I’ve spent no more than two weeks in Japan.
  • I made my first Japanese friend last weekend at a bar playing board games.
  • I haven’t worn proper pants in a week (see above).

And finally,

  • I’m a freelance translator for several industries, including manga, with over a million characters under my belt within the last year alone.

All right, so we’re clearlymissing some details there, but I’ll fill in the blanks as we go along. But if you’d told me this is where I’d be just one year ago, I’d turn and laugh in your face. It’s not an impressive story by any means, but this is how I became a freelance translator. Maybe you’ll learn something from it, too!

We all started somewhere (the abridged version!)

I have trouble explaining where I started with my Japanese studies, not because it’s particularly complicated, but because my “roadmap to success” (or as I like to call it, “middling stability”) is pockmarked with roughly thirty million pit stops on the way. To make a verylong story short, I’m an enormous, unrepentant fan of anime (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and manga (with an even higher tolerance for bad/ugly). I’ve watched everything I can get my hands on from a young age, so I suppose it was only natural—as it is for most people who drown themselves in the media—that I eventually ended up picking up phrases here and there along the way. (My junior high years were especially embarrassing for this reason—please pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, fellow alumni.) 

I eventually started seeking out more media over the internet, specifically online scans of manga that I were convinced were totally 100% legit. (Disclaimer: they weren’t. Some fans enjoy scanning in Japanese manga and replacing the text with English translations; an admirable pursuit in theory, but decidedly a gray area in terms of legality.) So you might be able to imagine my surprise when I giddily cracked the binding on my minty-fresh copy of my most recent favorite expecting to enjoy it in my native language only to find what looked like moon runes(Japanese text) on the inside. Bummer. But dangit, I spent over $20 on that book, and that was nothing to sneeze at for a broke high school kid! So, I hauled tail over to the nearest bookstore, grabbed a copy of James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanjiand Random House’s Japanese-English/English-Japanese Dictionary, and I spent the summer of 2005 transcribing a full volume of manga by hand. That’show I learned to read, and kinda-sorta understand Japanese. In the beginning, at least.

Granted, I was always picking up and putting down one learning method or another along the way, but mangawas always my no.1 constant for new vocabulary and example sentences. (Side node: You WILL pick up some weird words using manga as your no.1 source of vocab. And be sure to juggle different genres so you get some diversity in there!) I supplemented my studies (if you can even call them that) with various study guides such as the Sou-matomeJLPT prep guides and Tae Kim’s classic Guide to Japanese, but I never cracked an actual textbook. I just didn’t have the patience for it! Between music, anime, dramas, and manga, I breathedJapanese media. Eventually,I discovered that this was (and is) a very valid form of study known as immersion.Some of it’s bound to stick if that’s all you interact with for 20 years, huh? But if I had to do it all over again, I would like to at least take a class or two just to get the basics down.

“No experience?” Make your own!

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a passion for telling stories… Unfortunately, I’m handicapped by an utter inability to tell a compelling, original story to save my life, even if I halfway know my way around a keyboard. But what if I could tell other peoples’ stories? That’d be a dream come true! That’s when the idea of someday becoming a professional manga translator popped into my head, and I began translating comics for my friends in my spare time to help improve my Japanese comprehension while scratching that story-telling itch. As it happens, this totally qualifies as “volunteer experience” on a resume, which has helped open quite a few doors for me in my freelancing career (shockingly). Translating as a fan can be a great way to get feedback on the quality of your writing while honing your comprehension. (But only when shared among friends!)

Fast forward about 10 years to 2015 or so. I’d begun working full time at a call center (the bastion of all life-changing decisions), where I was able to pick away at whatever I was translating at the moment in-between calls. This is also around the time I began a casual relationship with what I’ll call a “starter” translation agency. I’ll note here that starter agencies are definitely not career-sustaining, but they will usually allow you to test in without ever looking at your resume, which makes them an excellentplace to jump-start a career in translation.The only downside is that, since the bar for entry is relatively low, they typically pay only a fraction of the industry standard. It still provides valuable experience, but your goal should be to find better sources ASAP! In my case, I filled out a quick multiple-choice test with the agencyand was then given a short block of text to translate into English. It’s very accessible to people who are just out of school or are fairly confident in their abilities. Since I’d never had a mentor figure in the language aside from the random person popping into my translation bubble saying, “Hey! I love what you’re doing with the place!” it was a nice way of getting validation; my first professional taste, in fact. And man, was I hooked.

I’d also been periodically taking the JLPT by this point to kind of benchmark myself and I was still riding high off a perfect score on the N3 when I found a “help wanted” ad for a bilingual administrative assistant for Hirotec America. That,friends, is where my story begins. (What is this, our third false-start?)

Don’t be afraid of taking new chances!

I can’t even tell you how many days I kept tabbing over to that ad, daydreaming, “What if? What if I couldwork for an actual Japanese company?” Problem was, they were asking for intermediate skill in the language, which I wasn’t 100% sure I had. And an executive assistant? What even isthat? With the encouragement of my coworkers and my most excellent boyfriend, I took the plunge, made the call, and in surprisingly short order I was signed up for my first interview with Kasia, who I’ve since come to deeply respect as my very first mentor figure for her constant encouragement. That interview was the first point in my life where I’d ever interacted with anyone in Japanese, and I was left a bundle of frayed nerves by the end, thinking I’d done terribly and completely shot any chance I had at what could have been a great thing.   

But then I got a call back. And I interviewed again; an even worse bundle of nerves than before. But by gosh, I somehow landed the job.

I look back on my experience at Hirotec as the place where I finally gained (some of) the confidence I needed to eventually break out on my own. I was graciously given ample opportunities to translate all sorts of material, ranging from presentations to meeting minutes, and corresponding with our Japanese counterparts with the support of Ashley and Kelsey, my two senpai there. I was a ball of insecurity when I walked in, but their feedback and encouragement gave me the strength I needed to eventually break out on my own. Granted though, I’ll never forget the blank looks on their faces when I said I’d be on 待機(taiki  – “standby”) during that one meeting… Remember that thing I said about manga teaching strange vocabulary? Case in point.

Here comes the advice column!

Armed with that courage, I left my job at Hirotec last year hopeful but unsure that I could make a living based on what used to be a hobby, but I now knew I had actual competency in. After all, translation is my passion—not chasing down employees with calendars! I’ll be honest, it hasn’t always been easy to find my footing since then (especially because I’ve gone into the whole “freelancing” thing completely blind), but let’s go through a quick Q and A on what my freelance experience has been, in hopes that it might help someone else down the line.

  • First things first: You are your own biggest critic. You are also the first line of defense in facilitating good communication. Be confident in what you’re writing, but also know that there may not be someone there to double-check your work. Double, triple, and quadruple check your work for accuracy, and give it several read-throughs for English fluency. Does it read like someone took a dictionary, ran it through a shredder, and put it back together? Then try again!
  • Play the IT card and Google it. You know how people say the key to being a good IT person is the ability to Google stuff? Sometimes you’ll find a term that simply doesn’t have an accurate translation (such as エモい[read as emoi], the absolute bane of my existence), and Google’s the only friend you can turn to. Even then, you might still find that the term doesn’t have an English translation—and that’s where you get the dubious honor of making words up.
  • Each client has different deadlines and style-guides. One client may expect a 2-hour turnaround for every 300 words, another 1-2 days for 3,000 words, and manga contracts may require a 24-hour delivery once you receive a chapter. Each client has different expectations, and it’s on you to keep them straight. As cliché as it sounds, becoming familiar with a good calendar program and managing your time wisely by understanding your limitations and the needs of each job is key to your success. For example: I was able to produce a 2,000 character translation for a LINE conversation in two hours yesterday because it was simple, everyday language. A more complex topic of equivalent length, such as a pharmaceutical report, will easily double—or triple—that delivery time due to the amount of research necessary to become acquainted with the subject. You might be a translator on paper, but your subheading is definitely “researcher.”
  • Make consistency guides/glossaries a force of habit. You don’t have to keep them around forever, but my experience with clients is that small mistakes are easily forgiven—inconsistent translations are not. If you’re working with text (and not, say, manga), CAT programs are your FRIENDS. They’ll helpfully tag whatever words pop up in your glossary so you can keep your terms straight. (I use WordFast Anywhere, but there are many other free and paid options alike available on the market.)
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of networking. I struggled finding employment for eight full monthsafter I struck it out on my own. I’ve recently begun using Twitter more, and it opened doors for me almost immediately. Make cultivating an online presence your priority.
  • One person’s success is not your failure. It can be hard, especially once you’ve started curating yourself online, to look at a person saying, “Heck yeah! I landed my dream job with X company!” when you can’t pay rent this month. But keep in mind that you are just starting out, and this person has been in the business for five years. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask for advice—they’re almost always willing to give it! 
  • Get used to irregular paychecks. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big ol’ fan of the pajama pant lifestyle, but there are times I miss the security of a 40 hour week. That being said, let me provide a quick anecdote: February has been a pretty dry month for me so far. That’s okay though, because I had so much work in January that I pulled two all-nighters in a row.Translation is a feast or famine industry, my friends. I don’t recommend you pull all-nighters, but… The money’s nice, haha. This might run counter to my next point, which is…
  • Set. Boundaries. With. Your. Clients. Be upfront with your hours (especially in your email signature) and provide emergency contact information should they absolutely require it. (I nevergive out my phone number. Skype or bust!) Also, try not to reply to emails outside of business hours unless it’s an absolute emergency or a juicyopportunity.
  • Put aside money for taxes. Okay, so this one seems kind ofout of nowhere, right? But as a self-employed freelancer, you don’t have an employer to offset social security payments. As a rule, I set aside around 30% of each check to accommodate for quarterly taxes. 

Let’s wrap this up.

Breaking into the freelance industry is daunting, don’t get me wrong. There are dozens of guilds you can join to get a leg up on the competition that I’m only just becoming acquainted with—ProZ is one, and the JAT is another. But what I’ve found is that there is more than just one path to success!

I’ll close this off with a quote from Professor Bijay Kumar Das that sums up what I love the most about translation: “A translator is a reader, an interpreter, and a creator all in one.” You, as a translator, are given a unique lens with which to filter the intent of the original creator. Not only are you able to enjoy their stories, but you have the unique joy of being the one to tell it to other people. It’s an incredibly intimate relationship on all fronts.

And, heck, what’s life without a good story?

2 thoughts on “Senpai Success Story #7: Nicole, the Freelance Translator”

  1. This might be the most encouraging Senpai Success Story so far (for me)! I’ve long been considering becoming a translator or doing something else that involved Japanese and writing. I get so intimidated by the idea that I HAVE to go to Japan for a long time or HAVE to take certain steps to get where I want to be, so seeing someone who started out on the same path as myself is really encouraging and gives me hope that I can actually achieve my goal one day. This is exactly the kind of solid advice I’ve been looking for from people who have more experience than myself. Thanks for posting these – they’re inspiring for people like me who are looking to get into Japanese-related fields!

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