Posted by: patenttranslator | January 10, 2011

What Are You Going to Do Now With Your Degree in Japanese Studies?


This was the question that the professor who was congratulating me on a brand new diploma that I was being awarded asked me during a graduation ceremony. The place was Prague, now in Czech Republic. The year was 1980. I think I responded by saying something like: “I am not sure yet, but I will figure it out eventually”.

The professor, let’s call him Mr. S, was a very smart man. For some reason, there was always a smile on his face, which was not very common in Prague at that time. He originally graduated in Persian studies, but later became an expert on cuneiform, which is one of the oldest writing systems on this planet that was used more than 3 thousand years ago in the ancient Middle East. Mr. S married one of his students who was much younger than he, of course, and as she was sitting in his classes with me and a group of other students her age, we were all wondering whether the sex between Mr. S and Mrs. S was as great as we thought it could be, or just OK. But only for about the first 5 minutes or so because his lectures were really interesting. Mr. S published several books about ancient Middle East in German and in Russian. He died in 1990.

Unlike for instance many of the young lawyers mentioned in the New York Times article linked here, I actually got to do a lot with my degree almost right away. My first job was interpreting for Japanese actors and a Japanese film producer for a film co-production in Prague in 1980. I met quite a few Czech movie stars during the shooting of the film. They all had to talk to me because I was the only one who could speak Japanese. Some of them were very famous already, some would become famous later. I even got to know some secrets about at least one of the movie stars who became very famous as well as infamous later. But I am not going to divulge them here.

I worked as a translator and editor for CTK, a news agency in Prague, and then mostly pretended to be working as a research assistant for the Oriental Institute in Prague. The institute did not really made me do anything because I was there only for a few months and then left for an “extended vacation” to Croatia, hitchhiked from there through Austria to Munich and stopped only more than a year later as a brand new immigrant in San Francisco. So you could say that in a way, I have been on an “extended vacation” for the last 30 years, and I was able to fund this “extended vacation” mostly thanks to my diploma.

The diploma in Japanese studies also led to my job with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1982, my first job in America. It was a fun job without a lot of responsibilities as I was mostly just talking to tourists in English, Japanese, German and French. I did that for three years. I then worked for three Japanese companies, one in Tokyo, and two in San Francisco, until I became a freelance translator in 1987.

I wish I could talk to Mr. S now to tell him that I did put my diploma to good use in all of the various jobs that I was able to have mostly thanks to this diploma, or rather thanks to what I learned before and after Mr. S gave us our diplomas during that little graduation ceremony in Prague in 1980. Although my old alma mater prepared me initially mostly for a career that would be similar to that of Mr. S – teaching what I know about foreign languages and cultures to university students, while keeping myself young through daily interaction with much younger, pretty female students (was this why Mr. S was always smiling?), it also prepared me quite well also for my present job, namely that of an independent, freelance patent translator.

There are many people who think that translators, including patent translators, will be soon replaced by machine translation software. See for example this discussion on my blog here. But it is of course wishful thinking. There is no software substitute for real knowledge, including knowledge of languages.

I think that the real problem that the young lawyers and other professionals graduating from colleges and universities in America now have is the debt burden from student loans that will make the life of so many young people very difficult for many years. They did learn something valuable in their law school, and they should be able to put their diploma to good use too. But they will have to carry a crushing debt burden for many years, which may prevent them from being able to use their diploma the way they would like to use it.

In a way, I was much freer 30 years ago behind the Iron Curtain then they are now in America. Although I grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I had no debt and thus I was free to decide what to do with the rest of my life.

If “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, as Janis Joplin famously sang in the sixties, what would be another word for a crushing debt burden from student loans before you even had a chance to really start your life?

If you are allowed to use only one word, my vote would be for the word “slavery”.


  1. “But it [MT] is of course wishful thinking.”

    In case your readers don’t want to wade through our exchange with respect to MT, what they might want to do is rephrase your title question to “What are you going to do with your Degree in Portuguese, Spanish or French Studies?” and then think in terms of Japanese.

    Students aren’t graduating in 1980 when most computers didn’t have a color screen and many still loaded data from a cassette tape, but in 2010 when Google Translate passed what a Portuguese translator considered to be an ATA test equivalent one out of three times.

    Computer power keeps doubling, so how long before free software passes an ATA test 100 percent of the time? What will this be like in Japanese in 2014 and 2017? Here is what one person said with respect to German in the New York Times comments section in March 2010:

    “In an informal test of Google’s service, I have translated the same German paragraph into English every 6 months for the past 3 years, and each time it gets closer to that of a human translator, with a greater sensitivity to context and idiom.”

    Google Translate recently acquired 1.5 million patent translationd from the EPO, some of which are Japanese to English.

    So the question those graduating should ask is how long before Google quality improves to where patents and other documents are written with MT in mind?
    Google Translate is currently very primitive, but it won’t always be.

    Most Japanese grads still require more study before they can translate or interpret in today’s market. They have to ask themselves if they want to translate, 1) are they willing to become editors and 2) are they willing to compete with those willing to edit for lower wages?



  2. May I ask what are your qualifications to make such broad, sweeping statements?


  3. I don’t think qualifications are an issue here, but I translate and have a science degree. Yet those who neither translate nor have a science degree can also see what is happening. I have followed technology since the late 1970s, and I understand how important exponentially increasing computer power is in terms of pattern recognition.

    SMT like Google Translate is pattern recognition, and computers use hundreds of millions of people’s prior pattern recognitions and thinking to create new translations.

    I don’t think it is helpful for young translators to assume they have decades of work ahead of them. They don’t even have a full decade left. That isn’t to say editing can’t be rewarding, and if not, many new areas will open up for them outside of language.

    My unsolicited advice to those learning languages seriously or have recent degrees is to make sure their oral skills are on par or superior to their reading ability. This isn’t so that they can become interpreters, but because even when quality interpreting devices come out over the next ten years, people will still want to talk to people. That will still be persoanlly and financially rewarding although maybe less so financially than today. Reading is still important for several reasons, but not in order to enter the translation field that will no longer be there in a few years.

    Another problem for Anglo language learners is that Engilsh will be used more than now inc oming years. For example, I have heard that Germans under 50 speak English much more with foreigners than they did in 1990.

    The combination of technology and globalization is powerful, and it is just warming up.


  4. You “translate”. Hm. I’m impressed. Obviously, you are highly qualified to make sweeping statements about languages.

    And what makes you think that your job will not be done by a computer?

    If computers can translate languages without understanding the meaning, why can’t they do your job?


  5. Yes, I “translate.” This is somehow different than you “translating”?

    I haven’t followed your thinking. Here is what you wrote before:
    “…whoever you are and whatever it is that you do. Let’s hope that it has nothing to do with translation because you don’t seem to be able to grasp really important concepts involved in this field.”

    Why is it that because I have a science degree and know something about the power of computers to raipdly assimulate other translator’s work, that I somehow woudln’t have the ability to translate?

    What are the concepts that I can’t seem to grasp for translation? There is a Japanese sentence, so put it into an English sentence that is as close to what the Japanese states. This is somehow a deep concept?

    You continue to make sweeping statements about computers unable to translate because they can’t think, yet you can only explain away Google Translate performing at a level on par with a human who has passed an ATA test 1 out of 3 times by assuming the translator wasn’t good enough to properly judge.

    I translate but also do work that Google can’t assimulate from millions of documents, so a computer couldn’t replace my work in the next few years because it depends on human interaction. but over time, I could at least be largely replaced by a computer when they become more powerful.

    So I strongly recommend that those completing a degree with Japanese work hard at spoken Japanese if interested in using the degree in the 2010s.

    It isn’t 1985 anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My question was:

    “And what makes you think that your job will not be done by a computer?”

    There is only one possible answer.

    If computers can translate language without understanding the meaning because they are so “powerful”, they will soon be doing your job too because there is no need to understand the category of meaning in your line of work either. I claim that it is not possible to translate without understanding the meaning of the text, you claim that it is not only possible, but in a few years human translators will have no work, which is what uninformed people have been saying about translation for the last few decades.

    If thinking is not required for translation, it is not required for your job either and any “white color” job would eventually be done by “assimulating” (what an ugly word) computers, rendering people like you completely useless.


  7. “I claim that it is not possible to translate without understanding the meaning of the text, you claim that it is not only possible, but in a few years human translators will have no work, which is what people uninformed people have been saying have been saying about translation for the last few decades.”

    Once again, a Portuguese translator claims he couldn’t tell the difference between free Google Translate and a human translator 1 out of 3 times. Google Translate isn’t thinking but has gathered the thoughts of translators and with more powerful computers, will produce nearly perfect translations.

    I said that for J/E, MT will turn human translators into editors in a few years and that the end of almost all human translation will come this decade.

    I already explained that my translation work is coming to an end. I doubt I’ll be editing, though. Most of my income is through my other work, and that requires that I use spoken Japanese, face to face. Eventually MI will replace most interpreters, but people will likely still want to speak on a day to day basis without MI.

    So those who are fluent in spoken Japanese will be able to use that skill longer than those who can translate but can’t easily communicate in an office, school, etc setting. My other work is less narrow than translating as well, so even though I will also move on to different work as technology changes, I could do my current job , or something similar at least ten more years, but who knows after that.

    The more narrow the white collor skill, the sooner a machine can replace that, including several medical jobs.


  8. “Once again, a Portuguese translator claims he couldn’t tell the difference between free Google Translate and a human translator 1 out of 3 times. Google Translate isn’t thinking but has gathered the thoughts of translators and with more powerful computers, will produce nearly perfect translations.

    I said that for J/E, MT will turn human translators into editors in a few years and that the end of almost all human translation will come this decade.”

    You keep repeating the same thing over and over again, without addressing the issue of the concept of meaning in translation, which is and will remain an impenetrable barrier to MT. If MT passed the ATA test, it only tells me that something is terribly wrong with ATA. Google Translate failed miserably my test. So who am I going to believe, the claim of some “Portuguese translator” or my own lying eyes? Take a look at my post A Simple Test of Google Translate. The MT product is barely usable, the same horrible quality as 20 years ago.

    Obviously, if you cannot speak Japanese, you probably don’t know it well enough to be able to translate it. And if computers can translate written language just like human translators, they can translate spoken word as well, so translators and interpreters just have to find a different job, for example as computer technicians.

    BTW, what is “collor”? I thought English was your first language. But since there are so many really strange spelling errors in your posts, perhaps English is not your native language?


  9. Steve, you are in denial if you insist Cris and/or that ATA isn’t compentent.

    Here is the ATA test quote:

    “Cris’ presentation, which she also gave at the recent ATA conference with Giovanna Boselli as a co-presenter, was interesting in that she used the ATA certification exam grading scale to score the output from Google Translate. Out of three sample texts that Cris submitted to Google Translate, two would have failed the ATA certification exam and one would have passed(for what it’s worth, I think that 30% is a better passing rate than what is achieved by the humans who take the ATA exam!). ”

    I never said Google Translate could pass a J/E test in 2010. I never said that J/E translators would become editors in 2011. But this is coming — soon.

    It isn’t true that if you can’t speak Japanese then you can’t translate. I know translators who have translated for years that can’t speak at a level required for business interactions and meetings. (I’m sure after 30 years your spoken Japanese is near native, so no worries.)

    That is why those with Japanese degrees need to get good at the spoken language since written Japanese will no longer be valued as a skill. Of course, to get good at speaking, they should read and listen to a variety of Japanese.


  10. […] some time ago I wrote a post titled “What Are You Going To Do Now With Your Degree In Japanese Studies?”, I see on my blog’s dashboard that people who may have a degree in Japanese and don’t […]


  11. Lots of people I know have the same problem, including myself – what to do after having finally obtained a degree? Choices are different. Some people go abroad, some stay in the country and becone language teachers. Some work in completely unrelated industries. That is a pity, because it is not that easy nowadays to find a good, skilled translator for a reasonable price.

    For example, I was looking for someone to help me with my Portuguese translation recently. In the end, I turned to a translation company and know it was not a mistake. People willing to work in the translation industry (connected to their linguistic degrees) look for jobs within translation agencies, so the best way to contact them is through the agency.


  12. But not the cheapest way


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    At the end of each e-mail there should be an unsubscribe link. Click on that link to unsubscribe.

    (I wonder why you are receiving 4 e-mails though).


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  16. […] Since I graduated with a degree in Japanese studies 33 years, I was able to put Japanese and other languages that I have been studying for more than 4 decades now…. […]


  17. […] belong to the first category, and my degree in Japanese studies served me well, as I was able to put it to good use on three different… over the last three decades, which is described in this […]


  18. Forgive me for posting in a very old entry, but as a teacher and fellow J-E translator, I felt compelled to create a quick WordPress account and comment.

    It’s “white-collar” job, not “white color.” Also, “assimilating,” not “assimulating.” (You are confusing it with the word “simulating,” perhaps.) Are you irritated that I should be so pedantic as to jump into your blog just to point out your spelling mistakes? I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you were!

    I don’t judge you for making a few spelling errors on your own blog (that would be ridiculous), but I found it highly unfortunate that you would attack a fellow translator and even accuse him of not being a native speaker on the basis of his spelling mistake.

    Not only is that rude, but in light of the fact that his mistake (“collor” instead of “collar”) was an imitation of your own mistaken “white color” (though his was closer to the real spelling, ironically); it is also highly unflattering to yourself.

    It was gracious of him to ignore the insult.


    • Thanks, Kevin. Feeling bedder now?


      • I felt fine before posting, and I feel fine now. Thank you for akking. 😉

        Who is Kevin?


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