By Joji Matsuo, Japanese to English translator, consecutive interpreter, and active JAT speaker

“Translation is no longer a viable profession if you expect to support a family.” This could very well have been the message that translators would take home from the first 90 minutes of the JAT’s May Meeting in Tokyo. Fortunately, the second half provided some valuable survival tips that will help translators improve their situation in the current market. Before going further, let me mention that viable was qualified by our speakers as the ability to earn seven to eight million yen a year for a family head supporting a spouse and two children.
According to a show of hands led by George Tokikuni, more than 45% of the attendees—a record-breaking audience of 100+ for a monthly meeting—have been freelancing for 10 or more years, followed by roughly 20% with 5 or more years, and 35% with less than 5 years of experience. Of that 35%, roughly 15% have not yet launched their careers as a freelance translator.
Masashi Ishikawa, owner of his own translation company and a former freelance translator himself, shared the results of an ad hoc survey conducted online by a well known blogger. This survey showed the median income of freelance translators to be anywhere between 2 to 5 million yen a year, a figure Masashi says correlates closely to his 4 to 6 million yen estimate. There were also some who earned more than 10 million yen a year, but the numbers presented to us, with fair mention given to polling errors, were far from encouraging. These figures are comparatively lower than our certified professional counterparts, such as doctors, lawyers, and accountants, not to mention salaried workers in foreign-capital companies in Japan. (By way of comparison, a show of hands at the “Earning the rates you deserve” panel discussion in PROJECT Nagoya 2011 indicated a slightly higher median of 5 million yen or more, with a heavier ratio of native J to E translators in the audience. Polls are difficult to qualify as a meaningful indication without some control over the respondent’s background, field, productivity, and field, among other things.)
Masashi explained this dismal earning profile as the result of a reluctance to decline work even at low rates. Such translators depend on volume to make up for the low rates, or may have supplementary incomes, provided by another business activity or a working spouse. He attributed this reluctance to the mindset of some translators who fail to understand and push for the true value of the energy and knowledge they put into their work.
Masashi recommended that translators start valuing their work as highly as any other certified professional. No number was put on that, but it would appear to be comparable to that of other certified professionals, given the amount of time and effort it takes before we are capable of working as an independent translator. He also made a strong case for specializing.
When asked how one should handle the request for work at less-than desirable rates, Masashi responded, “turn it down,” with the caveat, “if it is possible to do so.” Some translators cannot afford to say no, but this is why Masashi advises that such translators would do well to find clients that appreciate their quality. At the same time, he said translators need to bolster their skills to a level where they can command better rates.

George Tokikuni, a well known name in the industry, particularly the J to E patent translation market, shared with us how manufacturers responsible for generating the work in his field are squeezing rates to cope with the dwindling economy and fierce competition. This pressure trickles down through agents, who need to do the same to survive.
While an average rate for J to E patent translation work might be 16 yen a word these days, the starting translator will often be offered only 10 yen a word, and he has heard of offers as low as 5 yen a word.
For recourse, George encouraged those who, by show of hands, claimed less than top notch quality, to assess what they need to do to raise their level of quality and take action immediately. Here are some immediate things that translators can do:
1. Look for missing words or phrases from the source in a separate checking pass.
2. Look for sentences where the logic does not flow together. This is a potential indication of comprehension problems. Go back and do what you need to understand the material.
3. Run a spell check as the last pass over your document to catch errors introduced during the proofreading pass.
These activities will obviously improve the quality of your output, but more importantly, the perceived quality in the minds of your clients. This is important because mistakes, however few, indicate a lack of comprehension, which gives the client reason to demand lower rates. While this would appear obvious, it was brilliant of George to mention this vis-à-vis the argument central to this day’s session: poor quality begets low rates, which begets downward pressure on rates, which forces us to spend less time on quality, and so on and so forth.
Similar to Masashi’s suggestion to seek clients who appreciate quality, George told us that last year was the first time he approached new customers to drum up more business. Perhaps we can look forward to a follow-up report on his efforts in the near future. On the subject of sales, an experienced salesman in the audience suggested that we swallow our pride while negotiating with customers who, after all, are more knowledgeable than we are, and that we should not be discouraged when turned down, which one should expect 9 out of 10 times. George also encouraged translators to participate in seminars and talk with fellow translators.

Due to time constraints, neither presenter talked about productivity, which, if increased, can make a seemingly low rate feasible. Perhaps a session can be devoted to this in the future.

There are also reports by Tomoko Furukawa and Mayumi Toyota on this seminar in Japanese.