The Art of Translation: My process for translating from Japanese to English

By | October 10, 2016

Starting late last year, I’ve translated as a paid side job at Gengo for a few months, as well as translated parts of fictional stories as a hobby, roughly 25-30 chapters worth. By no means would I call myself a “professional” translator, but I feel I have had enough experience to improve my translation skills significantly.

For several weeks now, I’ve been thinking it would be good to capture some details of how I do my translations, partially as a note to my future self, whether I eventually go on to do translation someday full-time, or end up finding another hobby to consume my free time. Though I’ve known there was a big group of fans translating Japanese Manga to English, I’ve recently discovered there is also a surprisingly large amount of people (on sites such as doing translations of light novels and other textual media. So I was also thinking that maybe my experiences would be useful to those who are considering doing translation themselves, either as a hobby or as a career.

In the rest of this post I will be describing in detail my general process for doing fiction translations. Non-fiction does share many similarities, but there are also some differences, so I will be primarily focusing on fiction here. My workflow has evolved a bit over time, and what I will cover here will pull heavily from the process I used for this recent translation. I’ll also be including a few things that I recommend but may have not actually tried myself. My process is designed such that I pretty much do everything myself, since for the most part I haven’t had people do any extensive editing of my work. If working with a team then there would definitely be some big changes to the workflow.

Also, this process is designed around obtaining the best possible quality result, without worrying about deadlines. If you are doing a paid translation with the clock ticking, then there would be some significant modifications. That is even more relevant if you were doing this for your full time job, since faster output generally means more money in your pocket.

As for requirements to be a good translator, I think you really need to be fluent or near-fluent in both languages. In order to be able to produce a natural translation, it’s best if the target language (the language you are translating into) is either your native language, one you’ve spoken in daily life for several years, or you just happen to be a linguistic wizard. Despite my interest in translation I haven’t even really considered translating the other way, from English to Japanese, because I know how awkward it would turn out. However, if you are working with a native speaker of that language who can edit for you, then you still can end up with a good result.

In order to be a great translator, I think translating into your native tongue is not alone sufficient. You also need to have great writing skills and editing skills in your language. I haven’t researched this deeply, but I feel that many professional translators have some experience writing and sometimes even publishing their own stories. Having said that, if you don’t have that much experience in writing, I think you can slowly learn this as you go, give that you have sufficient experience reading in your native language.

Even if you are not near fluent in the source language (the language you are translating from), if you have a strong interest in translation I think it’s fine to go ahead and try out translating something. I guarantee you’ll learn a great deal even if you never show the result to anyone. But if you do decide to show it somewhere online, I recommend finding another translator to double check your work, or at least make it clear at the beginning of your post what your linguistic level with the source language is.

But enough introduction–let’s get to the process.

Step 1: Read through the material (carefully)

This may sound obvious, but the first thing I usually do is carefully read through the entire work I am going to translate without thinking too much about translation itself. Even if I just plan to do a single chapter of a novel, I generally like to read the entire book first.

This also may seem obvious, but also make sure you understand it completely (at least the part you are translating). Even if you are fluent in the source language, there can be parts you don’t understand, and by this I don’t mean just words and grammar, but also deeper things like what the author is hinting at at a deeper (philosophical, spiritual, etc.) level.

Not understanding the source text completely will virtually assure you don’t end up with a great translation. Sure, you can put it off until during the actual translation process, but once you start thinking in two languages at once you’ll have less brain capacity to do that. So get it squared away now.

The only time I would consider it safe to skip this step (and translate as you read for the first time) is if you are on a tight time schedule, or if the later chapters haven’t been written yet.

Step 2: Background research

As part of step 1, there may be parts that no matter how many times you read them through, you still don’t fully understand what is going on.

One example is in this translation, where the source text had a small section about making charcoal. To be honest, though I had used charcoal before I had little idea of what it actually was, or how it was made. Although this only mattered for a few sentences, I decided to watch a Youtube video or two about the charcoal making process (in Japanese) and it was quite informative.

Another time you would want to do background research is if you are translating a genre you aren’t too familiar with, where you might want to read a book, or at least a short story in that genre. I’ve read my share of fiction books in English, and I’ve never done this yet. But for some genres I might still consider it.

Step 3: Decide translation priority

Before you start translating, I think it’s good to decide where you want to spend the most effort and time.

This may vary depending on the reason you are translating, for whom, and whether it is paid or not, but personally I think the title itself is the most important thing. It’s often the first thing people see, and it heavily influences whether they will start reading the work. After that, I think a summary or a teaser (like what is shown on the back of a novel) is second in importance. After that, of course the introduction, whether it is a prologue or first chapter, is extremely important for the same reasons.

If you are releasing in pieces (like chapters) and you have some control over the timing, another thing you should decide early on is how far ahead you want to translate compared to what you release. Generally, I recommend translating a few chapters ahead, or you can think of this as translating a few chapters before you release one. So for example you could translate chapters 1,2, and 3, and then release 1. The reason is that this may help you catch mistakes in translation early and also help with consistency across chapters. (See the section on pipelining later in this article)

For example, once or twice when I was translating a chapter, I realized that there was a better term than the one I had chosen, and this was a term that was used for the last few chapters. In those cases, I could go back and just edit the posts, but you don’t always have such an opportunity, and even if you do you’ll probably get the majority of people reading it as soon as it comes out.

Step 4: Prepare to translate

I’ve had my share of problems with formatting and having things get messed up with cut-and-paste, so I have developed a certain process to avoid these things so I can focus most of my time on the fun, and most important part: the translation itself.

Since my end result is usually to publish the translation on a blog, this process is tailored to that. If you were producing a Word document, you should change things accordingly.

I find it’s very helpful to be able to see the translated next right below the original, paragraph by paragraph, as it makes it easier to compare.  However to do this you’ll need the original text in digital form. If this is a paid job you should have that, but if you’re doing it as a hobby you may not. If possible, I recommend buying a digital copy and sometimes if you play around with it you can cut and paste little by little (though this only is realistic for a few pages and becomes tedious). If you are doing a light novel that is released online without any license, it’s easy to just cut and paste. Another idea for a work that you only have a physical copy is to scan pages in, so you can display them on your screen instead of having to look back and forth.

(Note: I’ll be talking about things in terms of chapters from here on, but you can choose your own unit of work as you want depending on the project.)

Since I publish on Wordpress, I’ll start a new article at this step and paste in the entire original chapter into the “Text” mode pane. The reason is so that I don’t carry over any weird formatting from the original source, in the form of hidden characters that can display differently with WordPress. One quirk with WordPress is that extra vertical spaces (carriage returns) will get erased when you click “Save”. So before doing that, after I paste the original text I stay in the “Text” mode pane and add the following HTML manually on each line that is empty.

<br class=”blank” />

Now, I can safely click the “Save” button, though I still will work in the “Text” mode until a later step. The reason is the same– there are weird quirks with WordPress, like for example there can be different types of carriage returns that result in differently sized vertical spaces. Keeping to “Text” mode keeps things straightforward, with no mysteries.

Step 5: Make a first cut at translation

Now comes the hardest, and most important part: the initial translation effort.

When I make a first cut at translation, my goal is to go through it from start to finish, line by line, and produce a good rough translation that conveys the meaning of the source text good enough that I could show it to someone if asked to. I always try to use proper grammar, natural wording, and generally do not skip sections or jump around.

If I come to a sentence that I can’t immediately think of a good translation for, I will spend as much time as needed–sometimes as long as a few minutes–thinking of a reasonable translation. Generally I’ll try to err on the side of making an over-literal translation as opposed to a artistic/non-literal translation, since I find it is easy to convert to a non-literal translation later as compared to going in the reverse direction.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the actual act of translation in this post, but this step is definitly more of an art than a science. However, I generally look up words online in a variety of places, including dictionaries and other sites. I’ll use native dictionaries (i.e. Japanese->Japanese) to more fully understand a word or phrase, and sometimes English dictionaries to make sure I properly understand a word I am considering using. I’ll also use thesauruses to look for word suggestions.

Often, even after searching in several places, I won’t be able to find a translation for a term or expression that I am satisfied with. Even if I find a candidate in a dictionary whose meaning is appropriate, it may not fit the tone of the passage or the personality of the character who is speaking. It’s also not unusual for dictionary examples to contain words that are no longer commonly used in modern language. In times like this, I just sit and think about it until it comes to me, sometimes looking through related materials looking for a better term. This is really the hardest part since there is no well-defined process. Just cutting and pasting a dictionary word (or a whole phrase) without completely understanding the nuance involved carries a high risk of creating an awkward result.

Besides individual words and phrases, generally the longer the sentence is, the more time it takes for me to shift around the elements in my head in English until I get something that sounds reasonable. I remember the first few paragraphs of one translation (Hibana) being especially difficult grammatically and it taking a great deal of time to sound even remotely natural. If a sequence of events is being described in time order you will usually want to persist the relative ordering of those phrases. But since Japanese allows modifying a noun using an entire phrase before it (which can be arbitrarily long), often you need to shift these around for sentences like this (example: “すごく疲れてきた僕は。。。”)

One rule I generally try to not break is to preserve paragraph and sentence boundaries from the source material.These both can have a major effect on the style of a passage, and I often find that keeping things grouped in the same way results in a good translation. However, in rare cases when it’s hard to make it sound natural in English, I may break a long sentence up into several smaller sentences, or, even rarer, join multiple sentences into one.

If possible, I recommend trying to complete the first attempt at translation in one sitting, though that may be difficult depending on its length and your available time. The reason is that I find that once I am “in the zone” I become much more productive and am less prone to make consistency errors within a chapter. If you do it across two or more sittings, you might want to review your work each time before continuing the translation.

I am considering writing one or more posts showing my translation process for specific passages, and if you are interested please leave a comment to that effect.

Step 6: Editing (with embedded source text)

The rest of the process from here on is basically proofreading and editing. There are two major things to check: that the translation accurately communicates the original meaning, nuance, and tone of the original passage, and that the resultant translation is in completely natural, grammatically correct English.

I always go through several iterations of editing, and my priority gradually shifts from the first of these objectives (accuracy) to the second (naturalness).

Since the previous step (initial translation) also involves an attempt to make an accurate, natural translation, inherently this step is similar. However, the difference is now that much of the hard work has been done, I can dedicate my energy to the remaining portion, which to be honest can still be quite challenging.

One good thing about the editing process is that it shares much in common with editing a story you have written yourself from scratch (not involving any translation). So if you have experience with that type of work, you can carry it over here easily. I have a bit of experience doing editing for a few short stories and novel chapters I’ve written, and I feel it really helped improve the quality of my translations.

You can find many websites and books about editing and improving your writing style, but here are a few things that I pay attention to:

  • Avoiding repeated words that are the same or sound similar (unless you purposefully want this for effect)
  • Punctuation (especially comma usage as I find it has a major effect on the flow of a passage)
  • Consistency (using the same terms throughout the entire work, unless there is a specific reason to vary something)
  • Unnecessary wordiness (ex: long sentences that can be shortened and retain basically the same meaning)
  • Word choice (is there a synonym that fits better with the tone or flow of the sentence, or is less likely to confuse the reader?)
  • Spelling (an obvious, but very important consideration)
  • Word definitions (just because English is my native language doesn’t mean my understanding of all words is perfect, so I am not afraid to double check the real meaning of a word or phrase in a dictionary)

There is a set of considerations to make which will vary depending on your source language. For Japanese, here are a few that I think about:

  • Particles are not often translated word for word, and some are very difficult to translate
  • Need to make clear subjects and topics which are often omitted in Japanese, unless rare cases where the original material is purposefully vague
  • Verbs can also omitted in Japanese, and because of word order differences in English you often have to make the verb explicit in the translation
  • Translating regional dialects (very difficult, maybe I can write another article about this)
  • Japanese’s many first and second person pronouns (ore, boku, kimi, anata, anta, etc.) can be very hard to translate, so don’t force it. For first person pronouns, try to use word choice to adjust the tone of a character’s dialogue instead.
  • Make an effort to translate various politeness styles (i.e. desu/masu-chou) by using things like word choice and usage (or lack of) contractions, etc.
  • Though it depends on the author, I feel incomplete sentences are generally employed more often in Japanese, and in some cases it may not be natural to retain that in English
  • Be aware of the differences between Kanji variants of the same word, which can range from subtle (見る vs 観る) to drastic (攻める vs 責める)

Above all, don’t ever get regimented in translating one word or grammar pattern the same way each time. For example, just because you translated the word nante or the ending -tara a certain way before, that doesn’t mean you want to translate it the same way every time you come across it again. The context is always important. However, if the author is using repetition of some word for emphasis, odds are you will want to use repetition of some word in English to achieve a similar effect.

Generally I go through this process several times, depending on the complexity of the original work and the reason I am doing the translation. I would say the minimum is 2-3 times, but for some difficult translations I have done as long as 5 of more iterations. Ultimately, I don’t leave this step until I am very satisfied with my translation.

One important thing you can adjust which usually doesn’t change the meaning itself, but can have a major effect on the fluidity of a sentence, is word order. Try a few different word orders and see which sounds best.

I feel it is important to leave some time in between each iteration, at minimum 24 hours or so. The reason is to let your mind get refreshed and reset from whatever you were thinking during the last iteration. It’s a funny thing, but it’s not uncommon for me to come across mistakes, unnatural phrasing, or more appropriate ways to translate something on the 3rd, 4th, or even 5th iteration.

One trick I often use to look for mistakes and unnatural-sounding phrases is reading the text aloud, and I highly recommend trying this.

Sometime during this editing step I generally change to working in “Visual” mode of WordPress since I will not be tweaking formatting much any more.

Step 7: Editing (without the embedded source text)

All editing up to this point was with the original source text embedded every other paragraph. While this is great for checking for accuracy, it can be distracting when you are just trying to consider the fluidity of your translation, and ultimately you will not be delivering your final translation in this form anyway.

That’s why it’s important to remove all the original text and do at least one more full editing iteration (or more) before you consider yourself done. I’ve tried before to delete paragraph by paragraph as I do an iteration, but found that distracting, so I just usually go through it once deleting all the original text without really trying to read anything. This is one of the steps where it is clear that a specialized translation tool would save time.

One of the most important parts of the editing steps, determining whether something sounds natural, cannot be broken down into any set of rules or conditions. It can only be done using a linguistic intuition that is built up over time, from reading hundreds if not thousands of works in that language. Since I have been a fairly avid reader since I was young I feel I have developed a reasonable sense of this, however I plan to keep reading more books to further polish it. Whenever I read a book I now try to analyze the style as I go, thinking about what I like about it and what I don’t. If I’m lucky, I will be able to leverage more and more of what I read in my future translations.

However, one trick that may help is to search for phrases you are considering online. For example, let’s say I am considering using the expression “she batted her eyelashes”. I can search for it on Google (using quotes) and see over 50k hits. (Make sure you advance a few pages since sometimes Google cheats). However, using a phrase like “I slowly jumped” yields only ~50. While the latter is not grammatically incorrect, you could argue it is a little unnatural, or at least uncommon. Ultimately, you’ll still have to use your word-sense instincts to make your final decision of how to translate something.


When you start to comfortable with your own translation process, you can start using what I call pipelining to achieve more efficiency. This means you are working on different portions of several chapters on any given day. This will save time especially if you are trying to leave some time between successive iterations of editing of a given chapter. While you won’t want to edit a chapter twice in one day, you can edit two chapters, each in different stages of the process. Here is an example of this flow:

  • Day 1: Read Ch 1
  • Day 2: Initial translation Ch1, Read Ch 2
  • Day 3: First edit Ch1, Initial translation Ch2, Read Ch 3
  • Day 4: Second of Ch1, First edit of Ch 2, Initial translation Ch 3, Read Ch 4

Final thoughts

Since there is a certain amount of artistic license required to do fiction translations, there is a subjective element about what makes the “best” translation of something, and this can differ from person to person. Surely, if you had 10 professional translators translate a single page of a fictional work, you’ll get some wide variance between the results, though some of this will depend on the content of the source text.

Having said that, to a reader who is a native speaker or at least fluent in the language a book is written in, there is a huge difference between text with badly written, awkward grammar, and text that is clean and easy-to-read.

After all has been said and done, the most important thing is not that every single phrase was translated 100% perfectly, but rather that the overall impression received by the reader is favorable, and he or she continues to read to the end, and of course enjoys the story. Of course any philosophical or otherwise messages the author tried to convey should also come through in the translation, though that can be subjective as well. I’m not advocating for slipshod translations, since accuracy is very important, but rather that at some point you should take a step back and think about the work as a whole. This is one area which can be very different from non-fictional translations, where accuracy is even more important, and in some cases it may be OK to sacrifice some naturalness for the sake of accuracy. For example, even a well-written product manual would be hard to “enjoy” as you read through it, so the translator’s priorities may be shifted around a little.

Once I remember going back to read an old translation I had did several months ago, for which I had forgotten much of the original text in Japanese. Reading it with a fresh mind, I remember enjoying it in a new way, and I realized that if something is translated sufficiently well, I might actually enjoy it more in English than in the original Japanese. This is because no matter how long I study Japanese, it is hard to acquire the same sensibilities as I have gained in my native language from a lifetime of reading in that language. This will certainly vary from person to person, since some people may consider themselves to be equally fluent in both the source and target languages, but I use this as an indicator of what makes a good translation. In other words, if I were to forget something is a translation and all the details about the original text, can I really enjoy that translation on it’s own, as if it was originally written in the target language.

I hope you enjoyed this essay on my translation process. Feel free to let me know if you have any comments or questions.

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Translation: My process for translating from Japanese to English

  1. hohoEMI

    Hi locksleyu,

    Thanks for detailing down your process for translation from Japanese to English. I have always wondered what I should do when I come to a sentence that I can’t immediately think of a good translation for. Usually, I’ll skip it and go back to it later in hope that a good translation will ピンとくる. So it’s interesting to hear that you spend as much time as needed then, to think of a reasonable translation.

    Indeed Japanese love to put a whole long phrase of description before a noun that is simply awkward in English. The first thing that came into my head when I saw “すごく疲れてきた僕は” was “The me who was really tired out”, which totally sounds unnatural in English…

    Your overview on pipelining is very helpful to me. Also, I’m interested in looking at your translation process for specific passages. I’ll be looking forward to it, if you have the time to detail it.

    Emi 🙂

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Will try to write more on this topic sometime when I get a chance.

  2. Rachel

    As I am beginning a Masters in Research in Second Language Education, and I am interested in all aspects of translation and the writing process, this was a fascinating read! I would love to try my hand at Japanese -> English translation one day, so I appreciate that you filled this post with specific tips as well as more general pieces of advice about curating the reader experience. Looking forward to reading more in-depth posts when you have the time to write them 🙂


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