Lately I’ve been writing a few articles about my experiences working as a freelance translator for Gengo.com (here, here, and here). As it has been about a month now since I have started doing translations there, I thought I would write some more about what I’ve learned so far. Keep in mind I’m doing this part-time as part of a pretty busy schedule, as someone with no experience in translation. My personal goal for this first month was to do at least one job a day, and for the most part I’ve succeeded in that, although some days I may do a few or none at all.
Closest thing to living in Japan
One of the central points of this blog, and a major part of my life for many years, has been to become as fluent as Japanese in possible without actually living there. Working for Gengo I’ve completed or reviewed jobs in many categories, everything from business emails to website translations to personal communications. Although I intellectual understood the time zone difference between where I am and Japan, I am learning at a more deep level when Japanese people are generally busy, not just in terms of time zone but also regarding weekends and holidays.
A personal goal of mine was to use Japanese in a work environment, and working at Gengo is one way to achieve without actually moving to Japan. Gengo jobs involve not only a strong comprehension of the source texts, but also a good understanding of the notes optionally provided by the customer. In some cases there may be a need to talk to the customer, and it’s best to use Japanese for that (though I’ve seen a few people use English). Here, both sides of the conversation really *matter* since you are trying your best to please the customer, and in the worst case failing to do so could result in rejection of your job where you receive nothing. This sort of environment is really helping me polish up my Japanese skills in many ways.
Strictly speaking, getting a job in a Japanese company which has offices in your home country and speaking Japanese every day in the workplace would be a more effective way to get the “living in Japan” experience, but the feasibility of that highly depends on where you live, how far you are willing to commute, and what your existing experience is.
Japanese as a tool, not a form of entertainment
With a few exceptions, up until now my usage of Japanese was for entertainment purposes:for example when watching a TV show or reading a novel in Japanese. But to continue from my previous point, using Japanese in a work environment means that you have less choice over what type of content you have to understand, and more pressure to perform on many levels.
I feel this experience is gradually changing part of my mind to start feeling “just get this done” instead of “let’s relax and enjoy this”. In one sense it means a little less “fun” since things are more serious. But on the other hand, I feel that truly become fluent in a foreign language requires this sort of pressure and state of mind.
I’m not saying this type of experience will magically make anyone fluent overnight, but the more you do this the greater effect it will have.
A good sample of Japanese
I remember in college when I took a “survey” class where I learned about many areas of engineering, with the idea of using that information to help decide my career path. In my case, I had mostly already decided I wanted to go with software development, but it was still a very educational experience. I feel that working at Gengo is a little similar, since you get to sample so many domains where Japanese is used.
I’ve heard that making a (good) living as a translator requires a specialization, and getting to peruse and work on various types of texts is helping me learn more about what I am good at translating, what I could become good at, and what I enjoy.
Midway through January I thought I was getting a good feel for when the most jobs came in, but the in the last week or two I’ve seen some really unpredictable behavior in terms of the frequency and types of jobs. The good part about this is when there isn’t any good jobs available, I can work on something else like novel reading or translation practice. But I tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude about things, so it can be frustrating when I’m really in the mood to do some translation jobs but none are available.
The right way to work under pressure
Tight timelines are one of the things at Gengo which caught me off guard, but in just a few weeks I’ve learned to manage my time much better. This is not just in terms of raw letter count (letter count rather than word count is used when translating from Japanese), but it also takes into account the difficulty of the material and my familiarity with it. I’ve literally spent over 30 minutes on a few line translation just struggling to get sufficient background knowledge for an area I hadn’t touched much before, but for an area where I have much experience (like software development) I’ve knocked out over a page pretty quickly.
I like to think about time management as being similar to speed chess where each player has only 5 minutes for a full game. If the time runs out on their side, they loose. One strategy is to try and go as fast as possible and try to win on time, but unless your opponent is significantly below your skill level you’ll just end up loosing the old fashioned way by being check-mated.
So what to do?
For Gengo translation jobs, for the most part I put focus on taking my time and making the best translation within the allotted time, as opposed to just rushing to get it finished quickly. If a word or phrase is especially difficult, I’ll just do a rough translation and just come back to that on my second pass through. Even after my translation is mostly complete and ready to submit, if there is still significant time remaining I may do a little more research to see if there is a better phrase I could have used, or if I can find some related background material online to round out my understanding of the original passage.
I feel that like with translation, as well as speed chess, if you train yourself to do good work without excessively rushing, eventually you’ll be able to put out good work faster in faster naturally. But if you focus on time from the beginning, you’ll just be putting out mediocre work faster and faster.
The power within and testing your limits
On a few occasions I took on a job which I thought I might not be able to finish given the complexity of the text and the time limit. But I discovered that once I get “in the mode” I am able to accelerate my productivity to a level I hadn’t thought was possible.
Rather than being just translation-specific, I feel that this phenomenon is seen in many other areas where sometimes it is hard to accurate judge one’s own abilities. For example, I noticed the same thing happen regarding my Japanese conversation, whereby I can communicate things which I thought were beyond my ability.
Fortunately, in the worst case if you can’t finish a job on time the job will be reassigned to another translator after the time runs out. It would be better, however, if you can determine this at an early stage and just cancel the job so another person can pick it up sooner. Either way, doing this once in awhile is permitted, as long as you don’t do it too frequently. Gengo is a good place to test your limits regarding translation because there is no major penalty for occasionally “failing” (although once I did see a customer specifically request anyone *but* a certain translator). However, if you move onto to other freelance translation opportunities and do not make the deadline, there is a good chance you won’t get any more work from that customer again. Even worse, if rumor gets out that you can’t finish your deadlines, you may have trouble getting jobs from other customers.
Room to grow
One of the satisfying things about Gengo.com is all the opportunities that are available as you progress. You start as a entry-level (“standard level”) translator and get a decidedly “entry-level” rate, but you can take their “pro level” (or “business level” as it is also called) test and have opportunities for more jobs and higher pay. You can even take it one step further and become a reviewer for even more jobs.
The above information I knew soon after joining, but recently I discovered if the customer likes your work, they can choose you as a “preferred translator” that gives you priority access to their jobs in certain circumstances. I’ve only had this happen to me once so far and I’ve gotten any extra jobs as a result yet, but it has potential plus the nice pat on the back that you’ve made the customer happy.
In the email I received from Gengo about being chosen as a certain customer’s preferred translator, there was also a note that said those who consistently do good work can be selected for special projects, so I’m hoping to eventually get to that point.
Research, research, and then research some more
Before I started working at Gengo I read an article that said “don’t become a translator unless you really like research”. While that sort of made sense to me at the time, through the process of completing translation jobs I really have experienced that firsthand.
Usually when reading a novel for pleasure there are some unfamiliar words I come across, but 99% of the time those can be resolved via a simple google search. On the other hand, some of the content I’ve seen on Gengo has phrases I’ve never heard and searching them reveals no or very few results. In these cases it’s best to ask the customer, though there is no guarantee they will respond immediately and you have to consider what you’ll do if they don’t. If you’ve already accepted the job you can either submit your best guess (if you have a certain level of confidence), decline the job so something else can work on it, or try asking Gengo support to extend the deadline. I can also see myself eventually developing a network of contacts where I can ping someone quickly via email or chat to verify something language-related.
The importance of context
Context is what helps all of us learn new words and expressions, whether we are dealing with our native language or a foreign one we are studying. But one of the biggest challenges regarding Gengo jobs is that sometimes the context is very unclear. The customer may give a detailed description of the text’s background, a very short one, or nothing at all. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to learn new words quickly, but those that you can’t figure out immediately will stick around in your head and hopefully connect to a new experience at some point.
As with the previous point about research, if you need background information to do a proper translation the best thing is to try asking the customer.
Accepting jobs quickly, given proper understanding
After having a job I was considering accepting taken by another translator several times, I have been more vigilant about skimming the passage as fast as possible and accepting it as soon as I feel I have a good chance of completing the translation in the allotted time. My general strategy is that as long as I have a fairly good understanding of the source text, I’ll probably be able to figure out a reasonable way to translate it, given enough time. But if there are several portions whose meaning escapes me even after a re-read, then it is probably too risky to accept it and spend precious time just trying to understanding the meaning.
Dealing with mistakes
Mistakes or vagueness in the original text is one of the other things I wasn’t expecting. Again, context is king, and as I mentioned previously it’s best to ask the customer to clarify things. If you know the domain very well you can just write the target text (English in my case) keeping in mind what the target text was *supposed* to say. But beware of the risks here, since if you guess wrong you could end up with an incorrect translation. However, there is also the chance to really please the customer when they realize you’ve corrected their mistake without having to go back and forth to confirm things.
It’s not about the money and the freelancer mindset
I mentioned this in some of my other articles, but I think it’s pretty clear to most people who are reading this that working as a freelance translator, especially if you have little to no industry experience, is by no means a quick path to big money. The pay you receive is better than nothing and does help to motivate, but overall I still like to not think about the monetary angle very much while I am a standard-level translator. Rather, I appreciate the opportunity to work as a paid translator and all of the experience it is helping me acquire, not just linguistically but also dealing with customers.
One’s mindset is important here since if you focus too much on money, you might just skip the many small jobs which only earn a dollar or so. I actually give those preference myself, not only because they allow me more freedom in a limited schedule, but because they allow a quick taste of something new. The customer also may like my work and add me to their preferred translator list, giving me more chances to work on bigger jobs. Also, if you look at Gengo from the point of view of one important source of income within a group of several freelance jobs, things make more sense.
The other reason I mention the pay again is because some stories of low wages nearly turned me away from sites like Gengo.com. But I’m glad I decided to sign up as a translator in spite of that. The experience so far has been well worth it.
Due to some of the factors I mentioned above plus my personal situation, I am not planning going “full steam” on Gengo for the time being, meaning I will still be keeping freelance translation to a small, but important segment of my daily life. But I’m very eager to see where this will take me, whether I end up moving to pro-level some day or if I can leverage the experience gained from Gengo to open new opportunities.
As I ramp up my translation skills, I’m also hoping to gradually take on larger jobs. The larger the job, the better chance I’ll be keeping myself busy translating rather than waiting until another job comes in. Also, a job of length, say, five hours will allow for more interruptions compared to a shorter one that is only an hour or two, where running to the bathroom could even have an impact on my final delivery.