How I Found My Specialization

I started freelance translation as a pure generalist, as I think many do. I would take basically any work that was not legal or medical (I wanted no lawsuits or medical accidents on my hands), and in practice that resulted in some wildly varied work, including industrial informational videos, TV commercial storyboards, bicycle rule pamphlets, garbage separation guides, and many many more.

I was also very aware of the general professional consensus that specializing was the only real way to continue improving rates. As a freelancer, rates are the real key to improving earning–at a certain level, efficiency and speed of translation level off, and the only way to increase earning potential is to increase rates.

Generalists, who often are limited to working through translation agencies, have a much lower ceiling than those who focus on one professional field and work directly with corporate clients. Specialists can do that because they have established a professional reputation for skill and in-depth knowledge through their specialization, while the sales work of agencies often ignores individual translator skill in favor of gaining sales through lower rates.

I thus found myself looking for a reasonable specialization. Most specialized translators come into translation from another field, and their specialization is natural: people who worked in finance specialize in finance, people who worked in chemistry specialize in chemistry, etc. In terms of work experience, I could conceivably offer specialization in academics, particularly linguistics and second language acquisition, but one of the real draws for me to be a freelancer was the ability to choose work I found interesting, and that work did not at all sound interesting. Then, in spring of 2018 or so, I stumbled on the idea: sake.

I had been a sake drinker for some years, of course, but never really got too seriously interested in it as a topic of study. I had taken a brewery tour, and was of course aware of Yamaguchi’s premium sake products through Dassai and Toyobijin. Then, as I was thinking about what I could do that was both interesting and potentially career worthy, I saw a news story about local sake brewers pushing to expand their markets abroad, and I had it. This was a perfect storm: an industry that needed skills I had, that I was interested in, and was located right outside my front door. All I needed to do was actually specialize.

I asked around about ideas on how to capitalize on my location and my idea, but what it all came down to was three things:

  • Acquire professional skills (i.e. study)
  • Find a way to visibly demonstrate those skills (i.e. get certifications)
  • Let potential clients know about me and those skills (i.e. network)

For the first, I just started reading. I studied books in Japanese and in English about sake, including its history and production. I also began subscribing to magazines and online newsletters about the industry, and actually studying the way they used English in discussing sake.

For the second step, I turned first the Sake Service Institute. They offer education at varying levels, and I was able to take advantage of both live and correspondence courses to earn some visible credentials to demonstrate my knowledge. Naturally, one can argue about the meaning of any kind of pro-profit credentials. I have my doubts about the educational value of the Sake Navigator courses, for example. But one undeniable benefit is that they demonstrate to potential clients that I am serious enough about this topic to spend the time and money to study. That is exactly what I needed for the second point. I have also since completed John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course, and a Shochu Advisor course.

So, with some courses completed and research under by belt, I then had to go about the third point: letting clients know about me. This proved to be the most enjoyable part, as I was able to network at public sake events all over Yamaguchi. These not only let me meet and greet important people in the industry, but also helped me demonstrate my interests and understanding.

I also talk about sake on social media (which is only natural, as this is a genuine interest) and that is a way to let others in my general professional field know about my interests and skills. And yes, that also leads to work. It is important to remember, though, that simply using social media to create a “brand” is an empty thing that people see right through. My social media usage is always honest, because this work I do is something I genuinely enjoy and like to talk about.

I take advantage of brewery tours and tourist events to make contact, and never missed a chance to spread around my business card. I also kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities to directly sell my skills. For example, I saw a news feature about local sake brewery Shintani Shuzo where the toji mentioned she was working on a pamphlet to sell her latest premium sake abroad, and immediately emailed to offer my services. Since I had met the toji’s husband at a sake event already, it was fast to convince the couple of my sincerity, and we were able to work together.

I have since worked for Yaoshin Shuzo, Nagayama Honke Shuzojo, Chiyonosono Shuzo, Ninki Shuzo, and a variety of sake related organizations like Sake Business Laboratory, Sake On Air, the Sakenomy app, and more. I am currently negotiating future projects with three other sake breweries right now, as well.

I have achieved what I had hoped for. Local sake brewers think of me first when they start to consider English branding, websites, or catalogs. I am able to work directly with clients in the industry and negotiate my own terms, including rates, as a professional with standing in the field. I still work in other fields, as time allows and finances demand, but I am increasingly focusing particularly on this one field. As of right now, I only actively seek out new clients in the sake field.

It is not as lucrative a specialization as, say, international finance, but it is enjoyable, challenging, and has created personal connections that I value deeply.

I present this as a description of how people can search for successes in translation that don’t necessarily come from past work experience, or require much compromise in interest. Everyone has their own path, and maybe seeing mine can help others find theirs.

On Setting Rates

Translator Twitter always sees some kind of drama about rates. Low rates, unclear rates, unpaid rates…

Time is money. Really!
Photo by Pixabay on

This topic never seems to die down, which makes sense, because understanding rates is one of the great mysteries for beginning translators (and, probably, many other freelance fields). For the beginner, it can seem so deeply frustrating when more experienced translators don’t just tell them what a good rate is. I know I felt that way, and those first steps were so difficult that I was genuinely angry at times that no one would just TELL ME what I should charge.

It’s only now that I’m a couple of years into working full time as a freelancer, and successfully supporting my family doing so, that I understand why no one would. The answer is, as frustrating as it sounds, there is no standard. There is no clear baseline that people can share, because a decent rate is in many ways a personal thing. It is based on your own economic needs (cost of living, dependents, etc.), your speed of work, the kind of work you can do, the value you can add to your work, and a variety of other factors.

This is not to say that no one can offer guidance: They can (and I plan to)! Just that no one can offer much in the way of concrete numbers, with a few caveats.

So, how do we do it? We need to start with a few basic principles so that we understand why we’re doing what we’re going to do.

First: Translation is not low-paid work. It is a highly skilled job that serves real economic needs, worldwide. Even in common pairs, any rate that is near minimum wage is, frankly, unacceptable. It’s not economically defensible to pay work with these kind of required skills and talents less than a living wage. Have some pride in your work, and yourself!

Second: Freelancers should charge more than they first expect. Freelance work places a very large economic burden on the worker in terms of taxes, insurance, expenses, unpaid holidays, ad infinitum. A good rule of thumb that is batted around is that a freelancer can expect about the same “take home” pay from double the hourly rate of a full-time employee. So, if a freelancer is earning $100 an hour, that’s about the same real income as someone earning $50 an hour as a company employee.

Third: You are your only advocate. No one gives a rate in freelance translation: you charge it. You decide when to raise it. You decide what is fair for you. If a client is unwilling to pay the rate you charge, it’s up to you to decide if you will lower it, or find another client. This also means that:

Fourth: The burden is on you to understand your work flow. Is your work worth the rate you charge? If you lower your rate, will you earn more by getting more clients, or less because you’re underselling yourself? Are you working efficiently enough to earn enough money at a reasonable rate? Can you work faster/smarter/in a different field? All of this is on you. You’re an adult, and you made this decision to work on your own. All of this is part of that decision.

Fifth: You are more than just your work. Set your rates so that you can live a comfortable life. You shouldn’t be working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. You should be able to rest and enjoy life, not hate your work because you can’t stop doing it for a single day.

So, based on these principles, here is what I find a pretty good way to set your rate.

A: Decide how much money you need to live (per day, or week, or year, etc.). Then, add some more, because I really mean it with those principles. You want to have fun, you want to thrive. You want that middle class dream.

B: Figure out how fast you work, roughly. Naturally, this is going to fluctuate depending on job, field, weather, mood, etc. etc. But you should have a rough idea how much you can translate in an hour, all things considered. For Japanese to English, most people fall between 500 and 1,000 characters an hour.

Now, do the math. Based on the amount you decided in A, figure out an hourly rate, then use B to help set that per character rate. For example:

A= 700,000 yen a month. I work five days a week, 7 hours a day. That’s roughly 140 hours a month, yadda yadda yadda, so I’m looking for 5,000 yen an hour. (This is a conservative figure for a freelancer, as per the second principle above). Don’t forget the long term: I will need holidays, and sick days, and so on. I deserve those, as a human being.

B: if I can translate 500 characters an hour, I should charge 10 yen per character. You will find that this is not at all high for some fields (technical fields, financial fields, etc. will charge much more). But if you’re doing, say, games, it’s very high–largely because people expect faster output. Thus, if you can translate 1,000 an hour, 5 yen per character will get you that same hourly rate.

So, as you can see, it’s simple math but the variables are very wide.

This is also why experienced translators can say a given rate is too low, but not tell you what a baseline should be. It’s because there is a variable math to it, and looking a rate of, say, 1 yen per character gives no path to work out anything like a living wage. Working for such low rates could actually set that translator on a downward spiral, so that they use all their energy just keeping their head above water instead of having reserves they can use to grow and improve. It’s literally better to work at McDonald’s for minimum wage and use your spare time to gain skills so you can become a more successful translator, than work for nothing as a translator and dig yourself into a bottomless pit because you no longer have spare time.

Personally, I aim for 10,000 yen per hour, but so far really only average 8,000. I’m working on gradually raising rates and expanding clients to new, more lucrative fields, since I’m already working as fast as I think I reasonably can (average about 1,000 characters an hour) and I don’t want to work more hours (about 30 a week right now). Thus, my rates range from 7 (my absolute minimum for agency clients) to 12 (for direct clients), with special cases going as high as 18.

To end with, here’s my stab at a baseline: In my opinion, there is no realistic way to support yourself as a translator and live a comfortable life at anything less than 5 yen per character. That should be an absolute minimum for full time work. Naturally, someone out there is disagreeing with me, and that’s fine. I’m just saying, the higher you get above that baseline, the better things will be for you.