Translating Japanese as a Freelancer in the 2020s

We ask a translation crowdsourcing expert about what direction the industry is moving and what freelancers can expect in the coming decade.

Until the mid-1990s, many professional translators commuted to offices and worked as full-time employees. Some worked from home as freelancers that were contracted with one or more translation agencies.

From the early 2000s, web-based crowdsourcing platforms emerged, enabling companies to hire translators directly on an ad-hoc basis. In addition to formally qualified translators, a growing number of competent bilingual people took advantage of these platforms to find part-time work, thus adding to the talent pool.

Moving into the 2010s, the crowdsourcing platforms continued to evolve, and their use became more mainstream. Meanwhile, mobile devices greatly improved, along with wireless internet access. By the end of the decade, significant advances in AI-powered machine translation began having a major effect on the landscape.

As we enter the 2020s, what can translators expect to see in the coming years?

I took the opportunity to speak with Maki Osugi. He works at Xtra, Inc. producing QuickTranslate, a Japan-based translation crowdsourcing platform. He is also a key contributor to Qlingo, an AI-powered machine translation service.

Maki Osugi (left) and DLKR (right).

When did translation crowdsourcing take off in Japan?

We launched QuickTranslate over a decade ago. Back then, there were few translation crowdsourcing services in Japan. QuickTranslate was one of the first along with Conyac, which is also operated by Xtra, Inc.

Since then, both platforms have continued to evolve to serve the needs of our clients better. We also seek to provide more opportunities for translators to build their careers while enjoying the flexibility that freelancing offers.

What motivates someone to become a translator?

Most of the freelancers working for QuickTranslate earn their living from translation. Thus, they are professional translators. They love languages. They enjoy the craft of translation.

We don't hire them as employees or work with them on an exclusive basis. They're all independent freelancers. In addition to finding work via crowdsourcing platforms such as QuickTranslate or Conyac, they may also get jobs from translation agencies or directly from clients.

Nowadays, it's less common for companies to hire translators as traditional full-time employees who commute to their office. They prefer to hire on an as-needed basis. And, the old translation agency business model of renting a large and expensive downtown office space for translators to commute to is no longer economically feasible.

Furthermore, most translators prefer to have flexibility in their location and schedule. Thus, they turn to freelancing. It's a perfectly viable career for those who have the skills, are reliable, and provide excellent service to the customer.

With the internet, translators can do work for clients remotely. With less overhead, the client can save money. And, the translator can have a more flexible working arrangement.

However, if each translator had to make their own individual website and advertise their services independently, it would be a lot of work for them. And too difficult for clients to navigate. This lead to marketplaces such as ours emerging up to facilitate optimal matching and enable secure payment arrangements.

What languages does QuickTranslate cover?

We are headquartered in Japan and, to date, have only offered our website in Japanese. Most of our clients are Japanese companies. As a result, we specialize in translation to and from Japanese. Languages we cover include English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, German, French, Italian, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Burmese.

This range is a reflection of the languages most commonly used by foreign residents or visitors to Japan. It is also influenced by the countries in which Japanese companies are doing business.

The most popular language pairs are Japanese-to-English and English-to-Japanese. Since many Japanese companies have employees with strong English reading abilities, they can take care of English-to-Japanese translation themselves. However, Japanese-to-English translation requires native proficiency in English. So, this is more commonly outsourced to professionals, and it is this pair that occupies the largest share for us at around 80-percent.

Chinese is also an essential language for us. However, translation to and from Chinese, including both simplified and traditional characters, currently makes up only around 10-percent of our volume.

What qualifications are required to register as a translator on QuickTranslate?

To get started working with us, translators just need to sign up, submit their CV, and any other relevant documentation such as certifications or test scores. However, when it comes to translation work, ability and results are what counts.

We have some basic translation tests that we send via email. The translator translates some text from a source language to a target language of their choice. After they submit their translation, we'll evaluate it and get back to them within two to four weeks.

Most of our translators would be categorized as being intermediate to advanced. Some have over 10-years of experience. However, we welcome any translator with at least a couple of years of experience as long as they can demonstrate sufficient proficiency.

What kind of jobs do translators get from QuickTranslate?

We quantify the size of orders by their total character or word count of the source document. When the source language is Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, we count the total number of characters in the document. The average such order is around 500 characters. As for other languages, where we rely on the total number of words, orders tend to range anywhere from 50 to over 2,000 words.

The most common document types are plain text, MS Word, and MS PowerPoint. These can be edited by the translator. However, some clients submit PDFs, which cannot be edited, and the translator must provide the translation as text. We only accept machine-readable PDFs. Otherwise, our system can't calculate the volume of text and give a cost estimate up-front.

The writing styles and genres of the content we receive vary. A large proportion is standard business communications such as emails and general documents. However, we do also receive a significant amount of specialized content such as legal agreements, medical information, technical reference documents, or academic papers.

In addition to translation work, we also offer proofreading work to qualified translators. In this case, the client places an order, a translator picks it up, and they complete their translation. This is then sent to a second translator who checks it and makes any necessary corrections before it is submitted to the client for review.

How does QuickTranslate measure quality?

It goes without saying that poor quality, late delivery, and unprofessional communication with clients cannot be tolerated. While we do our best to be fair and listen to the translator's side of the story, it is our job to maintain high standards. Thus, if we can see a negative pattern, we'll take steps including warnings, temporary suspensions, and (in severe cases) banning. Thankfully, these situations are rare.

We encourage clients and translators to communicate with each other via our platform to ensure there are no misunderstandings. For example, a client should specify if they have particular translation preferences that may not be apparent from the document. And, we expect translators to ask for clarification if they are unclear on anything.

Once the job is complete, clients can leave a review along with a one-to-five star rating. The star rating contributes to a ranking system, which we use internally to track the performance of translators.

Of course, clients don't always evaluate translators fairly. Thus, if they leave a one or two-star rating, the system notifies our operations team, and we hold off on informing the translator. We then check whether the client's rating was appropriate or not. We might communicate with both sides if the situation is unclear. If we judge the client's score as being unfair, we ensure that it won't affect the translator's ranking.

Another major factor is punctuality. Translators must deliver before the agreed deadline. Of course, we live in the real world, and sometimes there are exceptional circumstances that prevent a translator from submitting on time. To avoid problems, we ask translators to do their best to inform clients if they are struggling or something comes up. Sometimes a client may be willing to grant an extension rather than replacing the translator. We also ask translators to inform us at the earliest opportunity of any issues that come up.

If the delay was a one-off occurrence, and the translator did their best to rectify the situation, we ensure that it doesn't impact their ranking.

How are translators incentivized to perform at their best?

Translators are incentivized based on their performance. For example, translators who are consistently awarded five-star ratings from clients earn a higher ranking and so we feel comfortable recommending them to more clients.

If a client has a great experience working with a particular translator, they can add them to their list of preferred translators and nominate them for future jobs. When a translator completes a job for which they were chosen, their payout is 10% higher.

Conversely, late deliveries and shoddy quality work may result in a reduced payment. However, we, of course, do our best to be fair and avoid going down this route if at all possible.

At the end of the day, whether a translator chooses to work with us or not, the keys to success are the same—clear communication, quality work, and punctuality.

Does QuickTranslate provide translators with any tools?

We provide a computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool. It is straightforward to use, but it's not mandatory. As long as the client is getting quality work done on time and in the format they want, our translators are free to use any CAT tool they like.

How do translators get paid?

Once logged into the QuickTranslate dashboard, translators can browse open jobs to see their manuscripts, total character/word count, deadline, and compensation.

Translators get paid for all of the jobs they completed during a particular month by the end of the following month. We pay translators residing in Japan via bank transfer and overseas translators via PayPal.

How will AI affect the translation industry?

Until 2016, machine translation (MT) technology had been slowly progressing for decades, but its output for Japanese to English was terrible. Few people took it seriously.

In 2017, Google Translate, the world's most popular machine translation service, switched its system over to using deep-learning technology for Japanese. This resulted in a dramatic improvement and raised MT's status from that of an amusing toy to being a serious tool for professional use.

Today, MT is too good to ignore. For documents that are literal in nature and don't require subjectivity or creativity to render in the target language, MT can help save a lot of time. Of course, a qualified translator is still needed to check the output and make any necessary corrections.

Some translators dislike post-editing work because it makes them feel as though MT has become their master, and they are now its slave. However, human translators are still required to polish MT output. Some content genres rely on creative interpretation to appropriately render the original intent, tone, and expression in the target language. This is something that MT cannot do since it has no understanding of the content.

What career advice do you have for freelance translators?

Twenty years from now, the translation industry landscape will be quite different. Thus translators need to stay on top of trends and be aware of how things are moving.

Translators need to be fully aware of MT's current capabilities and how they are expected to advance in the coming years. Clients are already catching on and, as a result, expecting faster turnarounds and lower costs.

The key to remaining relevant will be focusing on the parts that humans do better. Only humans can understand things such as emotion, context, and meaning.

What can we expect from QuickTranslate in the future?

Japan has seen a growth in inbound tourism over the past decade. Soon, we'll host the 2020 Olympics, which will further spread awareness of Japan globally. Thus, we can expect even more tourists to visit. As a result, we expect that orders from businesses seeking to capitalize on this opportunity will increase.

Our company, Xtra, offers a couple of MT services. We see an opportunity for QuickTranslate to become a hybrid service that combines the strengths of MT with human post-editing for superior cost-performance.

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