tips for written translating

The thought popped up into my head that there may be a lot of people thinking of stepping into translating, but not really knowing how to go about it. I will say it, as many times as the people before me have: Translating is not easy. I’ve been translating for nine years up to today (July 2012), and while I am not the best and still very much a greenhorn, I think I’ve garnered enough knowledge to able to form helpful tips for translators-to-be. Maybe I will end up speaking of the most obvious things ever, but I felt like sharing.

I’ve styled this list for those wishing to translate Japanese anime and manga, but the backbone of it should be general enough to be relevant for any language and medium. This is my personal view of translating, based on my own experiences, which I’ve found satisfactory for now. Maybe, by some infinitesimal possibility, you won’t find them helpful or agreeable with your own way (to which I say “Whaaaat” but I hope you do!). There is also the infinitesimal possibility that I might look back on this list in two years and have a whole other opinion. We are always evolving.

  1. The obvious one is, study hard! I studied basic grammar under the tutelage of a professor, but that was it. Writing and vocabulary was all up to me and I had a voracious appetite for them. I was also lucky enough to be born in a family that speaks the language I studied. Find self-study books, find conversation partners, find fanfiction written in that language (on Pixiv) which you darn sure will read!, write out your own sentences in that language and look up how they should be written, watch television in that language, whatever! Just be sure to keep learning, always, and don’t be chicken about making mistakes.
  2. We live in a world where information and possibilities are not restricted to your country! If you have questions on the details of your translation, ask native speakers or skilled and trusted translators for their experiences and thoughts to help you. Twitter is a wonderful way to keep in touch/make new friends for this.
  3. Research translations. Find translators (either fans or professionals) and compare their translated work to the original work. Take in how they have written a scene; don’t toss away a translation at first if you know that it is horrible! Whether they are good or not, whether you agree with their way or not, this will act as the foundation upon which you will find your own translating style. You may find something they wrote that you will take and copy for your own, or you will say “Ugh, I’m never going to do that!” and then never do it. Use people’s mistakes and achievements to further benefit you, so that you may benefit others.
  4. Do not translate literally. This is the very first mistake that new translators make and even I was prone to it. Literal translations will be dry and boring to your reader, and you never ever want this to happen. Imagine your audience, so excited at reading a translation of their favorite series at first, having that excitement thoroughly drained away as they read your literal translation! For shame! Translation does not have to be word-for-word. It’s meaning that counts! If you fear that your translation is literal, then I suggest that you follow this procedure:
  • First, translate the way you normally do, with your episode or your manga/novel open.
  • Then, keeping your translation open, close everything else down and put it away. Take a look through your translation and see if it sounds natural to you. You have to question yourself, is this what so-and-so character would say if they existed in real life right now? Is this what I would enjoy reading if I knew no other language? The whole point of this exercise is to input firmly into your brain that translating literally is not important.
  • If you want to take a risky step: don’t be afraid to translate in a way that contains hardly any of the same words from the original, but keeps the same meaning. It won’t hurt, and I have seen from multiple experiences that these are better received.
  • A side note to this is translating attacks and romanji (an incredible pet peeve of mine). For certain anime that I translate, where attacks are a mix of both Japanese and English, I use my judgment whether to keep it that way or translate it completely. Some things are just awkward when they’re fully in English. Romanji, on the other hand, is trickier and sometimes I hate its guts. I would like to note to the new translator that romanji is only used for the pronunciation of a word and not its spelling; be aware that the way you spell it may not be the way its author meant it, and you should be flexible about it.
  1. Read, read, read! I don’t mean just comics and magazines, but actual, thick books that have a book-smell. I know, wow, that’s so difficult, but not only will your translations be better for it with your larger vocabulary and sense of prose; you will be smarter, more creative, a more appealing human bean, and have a lot more to talk about with your friends and dates than the rest of the non-reading population. And don’t demean children’s books! These are most helpful at using the appropriate voice when you are translating for a younger age group. They’re also just fun to read.
  • While this tip isn’t necessary: write, write, write! Written translating, in a sense, is also the same as writing the piece yourself while emulating the author at the same time. You should have a writing style that can keep your audience hooked. So bring out your own creativity! Write stories, blogs, school papers (ack!) but with kick-ass flair; anything goes, just get your juices flowing.
  1. Stick with the times of the piece you are translating. Keep up with modern slang! This I find is helpful when you are translating humorous parts (as you may well know, humor in one culture does not always translate very well into another). On the other hand, read classics and archaic books for the knowledge on how to translate series’ language and descriptions that take place in ancient history.


A few supplemental tips that aren’t necessary but you may want to know:

  • Take good care of your health. Obviously your translation will be affected if you have blurry eyesight or if you have messed up hearing from loud headphones.
  • Immerse yourself in the culture that the language is from! Find out if there are events where you live that provide you with this chance. Otherwise, read up on it, find pictures, ask the people who live that culture.
  • Sometimes you are going to read through your old translations and say out loud “WTF was I doing when I wrote this?” and hang your head in shame. You are going to grab back what you used to write and want to rewrite it as your ears burn with embarrassment. IT’S OKAY. Skills and expertise get sharper with time; it’s part of every job description. Remember that and be nice to yourself. Always translate with the best of your ability and you will not have regrets.

Through these tips, I’ve learned many things; about martial arts and Japanese religion, the various culture of prefectures, overlords, obscure gods, businesses, and tongue twisters… the list goes on and I only know it will keep getting longer.

I may certainly add more tips in the future; these are what I came up with from the top of my head. If you have questions regarding this article that you would like me to answer, feel free to comment!

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