Working as a freelance Japanese->English translator at Gengo: 3 months

By | April 2, 2016

One of the main ways I decided to challenge myself in 2016 is by becoming a freelance Japanese to English translator at Gengo, the web-based translator agency. I’ve written a few articles already about the process to become a translator at Gengo as well as my thoughts being a translator after one month, and since I recently reached the 3 month mark I’ve decided to give another update.

My plan was to begin with only a small amount of work each day, and gradually ramp up the amount of work as I got used to translation and was able to increase my speed while maintaining quality. For my first month, I earned around $6 a day, and managed $9 for the second month. For the third month, I set a personal goal of $10 a day and managed to get slightly over $11.

It’s pretty difficult to measure my exact translation rate since I sometimes do “pre-translation” (where I start translating something before officially accepting the job), so the total time stored by Gengo doesn’t represent my total time actually spent. Having said that, I try to time myself once in a while, and I’d say that my initial rate was around $4/hour which I increased to $5/hour in the second month, and roughly $6-$7/hour for the third month. Keep in mind that job availability is random for any given day, some days I may do none and others do extra to make up for those days.

Despite the fact I’ve upped my translation speed, it still varies greatly depending on the content. I’ve done jobs with difficult content, or those which required a lot of verification at a rate of around only $2-$3 per job. I think my record was for a job that only took around 25 minutes for a $10 job, which works out to be over of $20/hour.

But I feel the most important things I’ve learned in the last few months isn’t something that can easily expressed in numbers. It’s more fundamental things about the process of translation and how Gengo works.

For example, In the last month I’ve had a few revision requests, which is where a customer doesn’t immediately accept my translation, and instead asks to edit something and re-send it for their approval. This could be because of a mistake on my part, or because they’ve decided they want to translate something a little different. While at first take these revision requests may seem like they take extra time with no financial compensation (the overall price of the job doesn’t change), they are actually an invaluable experience for a few reasons. First, the communication with the customer (which is almost always in Japanese) helps me learn more business Japanese, and allows me to practice my writing skills which is pretty rare for me. Second, the feedback is great because it allows me to catch mistakes on my end, or at least get a deeper understanding into what the customer wants. This is something I maybe able to apply to future jobs, resulting in a better quality translation. Besides pointing out a translation error or word choice they want modified, they can ask to shorten something or make it less wordy, or to adjust the tone. Keep in mind the customers may have a mediocre to reasonable grasp of English, or in some cases may have an English-speaking friend review it for them. I had one such case where I went back and forth several times to refine the translation, and though it took much time it was a very worthwhile experience.

One unique experience I had was where I was asked to refine my translation based on translation of similar content which was provided by the customer, after I had done the initial translation. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but there were several errors in their translation and was torn on whether I should tell them or not. I asked Gengo’s customer service, to which they replied that in this case it was better I didn’t try to correct this reference translation, instead just use it as a reference and maintain my own style as much as possible.

I also learned that there are two fundamental types of translation jobs: those where the customer wants to transmit information to another party, and those where the customer has information they received that they just want to understand themselves. The latter of these seems to be much less frequent, but the stance taken by the translator should be different in these cases. For example in the latter case, slightly unnatural English (the target language) is much less of a problem, and a literal translation is probably best.

Sometime around March I was fortunate to be set as a preferred translator by a certain customer, and as a result I had access to a bunch of their special jobs which not not have been available to non-preferred translators. These jobs were related to the food industry, and actually quite difficult with many terms I was unfamiliar with. However, I forced myself to try and do at least one or two of these jobs a day, and gradually increased my knowledge and efficiency of these types of jobs.

One of the greatest parts about working at Gengo – feeling like you are almost living in Japan – is still very rewarding after 3 months.

For the next month or so, I am considering on maintaining my rate of around $10 a day if possible, since I think this is a reasonable amount of work to do given all my other things going on.

I was also considering trying to take the professional level test, but then I realized that even if I were to pass the test, I don’t feel like I have full confidence that I can provide consistent “professional-level” translations. So I think I’ll keep on at the basic level for at least another month to train myself further.

My biggest conundrum is that the translations I am most interested in, those which involve some sort of creative material (especially things like short stories or novels), are pretty rare on Gengo. If I keep at my present rate I’ll improve my translation skills for jobs commonly found on Gengo, but that won’t leave much time for me to refine my creative translation skills. So I’m still debating whether I should reduce my rate and do more hobby (unpaid) translations on my own. If I am able to find a Japanese author who would let me translate their work for free and put it somewhere online, then I might be able to gain popularity and eventually move up to paid jobs doing things like short stories and novels. I have some ideas how to find such people, but will need to set aside some time to devote to it.


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7 thoughts on “Working as a freelance Japanese->English translator at Gengo: 3 months

  1. Emi

    Very very interesting. Thank you locksleyu, you have motivated me to check out Gengo too.
    Will see if I can handle this.

  2. scalesoflibra

    I recently logged in to Gengo for the first time in months and all the old moral dilemmas came flooding back. Before I got into translation, professional translators said “Don’t work for less than 10 cents per character!” But I couldn’t find any steady client willing to pay that. If there are enough people willing to work for peanuts, will that not push wages in the industry down? To say nothing of driving down respect for translators as a profession.

    I find it interesting that you mentioned someone might not get a job due to a translator’s poor translation, and while that’s certainly true, in this particular context, anyone with that much on the line most certainly should not be entrusting their fate to a standard-level anonymous translator! You get what you pay for. Obviously if as a client you’re paying Gengo 5 cents per character for a standard level job, Gengo is paying the translator less than that, otherwise how would Gengo make a profit? I suppose some clients (like whatever high school student submitted their homework for translation…oy vey, see my former ALT tears?) aren’t even going to think about that aspect, but it’s there. To be honest, if I see that I’m researching too much (“too much” being “anything that drops the hourly rate below $10”), I stop myself. If the client wanted a proper translation of the name of some METI initiative that’s gotten zero press in the English-speaking world and the only way to get at it is to scroll through PDFs on METI’s website, they should’ve had the decency to mark the job as Pro level or better yet, contact a professional translator specializing in business or law. Even though I don’t go into Gengo with the intent of making gobs of cash, I don’t go in there to do charity work for businesses too cheap to hire translators at decent rates either. If most Gengo translators are in your boat (I don’t know that they are, but I get that impression from posts in the Gengo support forums), it’s outright exploitation. The service itself wouldn’t survive if the company weren’t making decent money, yet there’s a bunch of translators out there who spend even one hour of their lives making less than minimum wage while this company turns a profit? おかしいでしょう?

      1. Vinay

        Hi locksleyu,

        I have just finished hiragana and katakana reading. I have used James Heisig method to learn kanji. Its been three years, but I have not gone beyond 100 kanji.

        I now am on the verge of finishing “Beginning Japanese for Professionals: Book 1” by Emiko. Next I intend to take up Book 2 by the same name and author.

        But what do I do after that? I mean after little beginners stuff, I still am unable to read anything in Japanese, and I seem unable to bridge this gap from beginner to intermediate.

        Are there relevant text books for that?


        1. locksleyu Post author

          How strong is are your grammar skills, do you frequently run across grammar you aren’t familiar with? If so, then I would get a book or two and study a bunch of grammar patterns (though do it in parallel with other studying so you don’t get bored).

          If you think your grammar is strong, I would start with children’s books and gradually work your way up. Not only do they have low or no Kanji, when they do they usually have furigana. You can start with books for young children and gradually move up to toddlers, teens, etc.

          You can also make flashcards or notes for the Kanji you come across reading real Japanese books, and it will be easier to study those than a random list in an app or online.


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