How Customers Can Make the Most of J-To-E Freelance Translators’ Services

Frank Moorhead

Translation services are usually provided by freelance translators or agencies. Freelancers work alone as individuals or small incorporated entities, while agencies are usually incorporated and have a number of translators on their books, including in-house employees, outside translators under exclusive contracts, and freelancers.

The comments in this article primarily aim to provide customers with some advice on how to make the best of the services provided by freelance translators who offer Japanese-to-English translation services. To some extent, they may also apply to English-to-Japanese translators, and to Japanese-English interpreters.


Freelance translators are in a similar position to doctors, dentists and other professionals when it comes to scheduling, because their time is a limited resource. Once they accept a job, they cannot accept another job until they have completed the present one. But while doctor’s and dentist’s appointments usually last for anything from 10 minutes to an hour or more, a single commission that a translator accepts may last for anything from an hour to several days.

Most translators handle jobs on a first-in, first-out basis, completing them in the order they accept them. No professional translator will miss a promised deadline for Client A because a more lucrative or interesting job offer with a tighter deadline comes in later from Client B. However, large jobs with longer deadlines sometimes allow a certain amount of leeway. Freelance translators may be able to take some time off from working on a job from Client A to squeeze in a shorter job for Client B, but must still meet the agreed deadlines for both.

As soon as a client knows there is a job pending, I advise them to contact their preferred freelance translator quickly, providing as much detail as possible about the content, the number of source characters (in the case of Japanese), and the required deadline.

The more experienced or skilled translators are, the less likely they will be able to accept work starting immediately because they will already be working on something for another client. However, they should be able to tell the client exactly when they can start working on the project and, with luck, agree on a mutually acceptable delivery deadline. Once the starting date is settled, it is important that the client adhere to the schedule. For freelance translators, time is indeed money, and if a job is delayed or cancelled altogether, freelance translators can actually lose a great deal of time and money because they have set aside the time for the job in question. This often means opportunity losses caused by turning down other job offers that may arise in the meantime. Once this time or money is gone, it can never be replaced. It is gone for good. This may be difficult for salaried clients to understand, because they receive their salaries whether a job comes in or not, but the only source of income for freelance translators is the work they do and deliver.


The question of how much work a translator can complete over a certain period of time frequently comes up on translators’ forums and mailing lists. As a Japanese-to-English translator, I reckon I can handle a steady stream of around 4,000 Japanese characters per working day, which includes several drafts, checks for errors and omissions, at least one review and at least one final rewrite. That can work out at anything from eight to fourteen hours’ work a day, depending on the difficulty of the text, the research involved, and other factors.

Of course, some translators can handle considerably more than that, and even I have translated 15,000-20,000 Japanese source characters on rare occasions. But I would not want to do this regularly, because exhaustion sets in and quality may suffer.

As a general rule, I would advise clients to consider something like 4,000- 5,000 Japanese source characters per full working day to be a maximum yardstick. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a comparable figure for the reverse (English-to-Japanese) might be 1,200 English source words, but I would strongly advise discussing this with the translator involved.

Expectations of omniscience

Many clients seem to think that experienced translators know everything. Even when I have considerable expertise in a subject, there is a lot more I don’t know. Translation is a constant learning process and every day sees me researching something, from the names of political parties and politicians in Thailand to the various formulas used in calculating inflation and quotations from speeches given by eminent public figures. I really enjoy this aspect of translation, but it can be very time-consuming. Many of the writers writing reports for translation appear to forget that it will be translated. If they know the English name of a Chinese pork processing company covered by their report, for example, they can simply insert it in brackets after the Chinese name. I’ve spent many hours researching things like this while under deadline pressures, which can be harmful for quality as well as my own health.

However, it is not a good idea to insert the English rendering within the Japanese text and omit the original Japanese expression. The resulting mixture of Japanese and English is extremely difficult for translators to handle because it interrupts their attempts to grasp the overall meaning and flow of the Japanese text. Inserting known renderings in brackets, as mentioned above, is much more helpful. It not only saves time but also helps translators develop their own glossaries, which enables them to improve the quality of their services and speed things up with similar translations in the future.

Many companies develop their own in-house acronyms and jargon, but these are often completely indecipherable to outsiders like translators. Sometimes, I will complete a long translation without knowing whether frequently-used acronyms and jargon refer to products, services or concepts, which is hardy conducive to producing good-quality translations. Any hints as to the meanings of acronyms and jargon is always welcome.

Word choices

Professional translators take great care when choosing words in a particular context. Of course, this does not apply to technical terms and proper names, which must always be consistent with the reality and general practice. However, some clients later comment that “X” would surely be preferable to “Y” in a particular sentence. They should be aware that the translator has probably consulted several dictionaries and thesauruses before deciding which choice of word sounds best in the context. When clients ask me what I think about their suggestions, I usually tell them that I chose a particular word or expression carefully because I think it fits in best. Of course, I immediately accept any suggestions that improve the translation. If the client and I cannot reach agreement, I advise them to make any changes they wish, but on their own responsibility, not mine.

These are just a few pointers to making the most of freelance translators’ skills and services.

I’ve always believed that translation should be a cooperative venture between the client and the translator. Unfortunately, ignorance, ego and other obstacles on one or both sides can trigger an adversarial relationship that will almost always result in a poor outcome. This should be avoided at all costs.