Job Prospects in Japan: Translation and Interpretation

“Job prospects” is a new miniseries of articles, where I will have a look at various types of professions that are commonly available to foreigners in Japan, try and look at whether the field is easy to get into or not, and subsequently discuss whether it is feasible to pursue a career in Japan in that given field.

Maybe a rare picture of the fabled Babel fish

Last time we had a look at language teaching, the profession of choice for people who want to work in Japan but do not speak any Japanese. But what if you do speak some Japanese? What opportunities suddenly become available to you? Even for someone that speaks good Japanese, finding employment is not a given. Japanese is a hard language to learn and master, spending significant time to study the language in University, for example, will often lead to potential hires only having their Japanese language skills to market themselves to Japanese employees. They end up competing with Japanese candidates for the same job openings, which more often than not leads to the Japanese candidate getting hired instead of someone from overseas, who has not even proven that they can adapt to the Japanese working atmosphere.

Being a foreigner can be an advantage

Of course, there are also plenty of jobs available, where your being a foreigner is an advantage. Invariably, these often tend to be jobs related to Languages. What makes Japanese such a hard language to grasp for many, is that it is so different from other languages. But this also works in the reverse, making many languages exceedingly difficult to pick-up for native Japanese-speakers. Add the fact, that the Japanese language education system can be pretty outdated, often memorizing grammar and single words are prioritized above actually speaking the language, and you end up with a country that has a great many people who can only really speak one language, Japanese. But we live in a global world, business and media cannot afford to be available in a single language anymore, or they risk getting left behind by the competition. Thus, there is a great need for translators and interpreters in Japan. 

Translation by humans is still favored at the moment, but for how long?

If companies are sufficiently big, they might hire foreigners to handle overseas clients directly. But in many cases, what ends up happening is that dispatch translators or interpreters are used instead, especially when it comes to less widely spoken languages. If you speak sufficient Japanese (at least Japanese Language Proficiency Level N2), you can often quite easily get hired as a translator or interpreter. Especially the videogame industry appears to be looking for translators and localizers quite a bit. Unfortunately, these jobs are often not very well paid and offer little incentive to people for staying on for long periods. If you end up working for a dispatch company, you will most likely have to work the weekend, public holidays or even night-shifts. As alluded to earlier, you will also most likely not make any significant career advancement as a translator, if you want a higher salary or more responsibility, you will most likely have to change jobs instead of waiting for a promotion. Similar to language teaching, I would also say that the profession of translation and interpretation is also significantly threatened by digitalization, with services like Google Translate becoming more and more reliable. 

Still better than language teaching, probably

On the other hand, you will most likely be using Japanese in a Japanese working environment. If you are hoping to work in Japan for the long-term, then there are worse choices that you could make for a first job. In the language teaching article, I said that it can be difficult to transition from being a teacher to another job. And while Japan is still a society that does not look too favourably to people who change their jobs often, getting started in translation to ultimately do something different is not the worst choice that you can make. If you have no other certifiable skills besides Japanese, then getting started as a translator will offer you the opportunity to acquaint yourself with Japan and the working environment and atmosphere, which is often way more important than whether you can code or have sales experience or similar. 

And there you have it. Being a translator or interpreter, while maybe not the best long-term career choice, is something that you can make work over the short-term while transitioning to something else. Job prospects may vary a bit, depending on your native language, but as long as you can speak English and Japanese (and have certificates backing you up), then you should be able to find a decent job quite easily. Just keep in mind that you probably do not want to stay there for too long.


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