Working in Japan: Getting Started as a Freelance Translator on Gengo

Although I still get some work with oDesk, it hasn’t been nearly enough to make ends meet.  On top of that, I’m finding that for quite a few companies that advertise, outsourcing to freelancers = way to get away with paying less than minimum wage for work.

Seriously, I just did a timely estimate of website translation job (privacy policy, user agreements, the whole shebang) for a company that originally approved my character rate, only to be met with the response that they were looking for something more in the range of $0.01 – $0.015 a character.  What a time waster!  (For reference, a $0.02 – $0.03 character rate is pretty much minimum wage for Japanese > English translation work.)

So in light of that, I started branching out more.  In March I registered with Gengo, one of the bigger translation sites, and it’s currently one of the places I’ve been receiving steady work from.

Gengo is good for translators like me just breaking into the industry without a degree in translation, a long work history in the field, or a portfolio.  If you pass one of their Standard or Pro tests, you’re in!  No resumes, no interviews, etc.  There’s also no time limit for the test.  The only catch is that your test has to meet the criteria of the senior translator grading it, and the result is final.  Gengo has caught a lot of flack for this over the years from working professionals who were unable to pass after taking the test for kicks.  I’m not sure who this exactly reflects poorly on, but in any case don’t underestimate the test.

I was fortunate enough to pass the Standard test with a perfect score on my first try, and although I’m not allowed to tell you which test I received or what I wrote, here are some things I did before and during the test that worked in my favor.

  1. Read the Gengo Style Guide and try to follow it as much as possible on the test.
    Although it doesn’t explicitly say you have to know or use all the details of the style guide beforehand, doing so shows that you’ve done your reading beforehand and an extra level of commitment.  Pay special attention to triple brackets.  🙂
  2. Assess the tone of the test piece.
    Mine was an excerpt from a book, with the name of the book provided as a source.  Although I had a lot of clues about the style of writing from the piece itself, I looked up the book and read some of it to get a better feel for the audience the original book and piece had been originally intended for.
  3. Do your research.
    I didn’t know much about the topic the test translating was on, so I had to use my Google-fu to research about it a little.  The majority of translation work seems to involve some kind of research, unless you’re like one of those people on Jeopardy! that already know everything.  😉
  4. Don’t get too artistic.
    If it’s not something that needs to be localized because of the audience, provided it doesn’t sound funny or strange, translate things as literally as possible with original grammar forms.  I have no idea if this is an actual rule, but many other Gengo translators have commented on it, and it definitely worked for me.
  5. Do multiple proofreads before submitting!
    Some typo or grammatical errors will automatically give you a failing grade, so I suggest looking over it once, taking a break, and then giving it at least one final review before you hit submit.

There’s also a multiple choice test you have to pass before you get to the real translation test, but I think it was pretty straightforward.  If you can’t pass that one, I’d suggest doing a little more studying before trying to go into translation as a career.  ^^;;  A 4/5 on the multiple choice test allows you to take the Standard test, but you need 5/5 for the Pro test.

Although I got 5/5 on the multiple choice test, I decided to only go with the Standard test instead.  You might wonder why considering Standard jobs on Gengo pay only $0.02 a word (minimum wage), while Pro jobs pay $0.06 (lower professional wage) instead.*  Well, I wasn’t sure what professional level meant to Gengo.  For some that means translations based in a certain industry.  For others that means accomplishing bigger paid projects.  There’s also people who think anything is professional as long as the output is professional.  Going for Standard allowed me to still register and work while I figure it out where I stand.  It gives me a chance to build up a solid good rating average by doing “easier” jobs in the mean time.

Standard level requires you to keep a good rating average of 7 out of 10 or higher.  In comparison, you need a 9 out of 10 for Pro level.  If you go immediately Pro and don’t land a 9 out of 10 or higher on your first handful of reviewed jobs, you’re demoted right off the bat because your average will be lower than the necessary 9 out of 10.  That means any Pro test effort would have been wasted.  It’s a lot easier to pad your average with Standard jobs and then work your way up to Pro level, unless you are really confident.

After you pass either test, to receive your earnings you need an account with Paypal or Skrill.  I’ve been a Paypal user for years, but decided to go with Skrill instead because of the good things I had heard about them.  Boy, was that a mistake!  Skrill made setting up a U.S. account outside of the U.S. the biggest hassle ever, plus they charge an ridiculous $4.99 fee to transfer money to your bank. (Something that Paypal does for free.)  So if you’re torn between the two, I definitely recommend Paypal for better service and less fees. (Not that I’m saying Paypal has the best customer service or anything, but it sure beats Skrill IMHO.)

Like any system, Gengo isn’t perfect.  It’s probably not for everyone.

Pros
Also, because Gengo is based in Tokyo, much of the work they receive is Japanese > English so you don’t really have to worry about there ever not being enough work.  There’s no age limit to join either, so it’s also good for college students that are currently studying translation and want to get some experience first.  I like the aforementioned part about not needing a resume, portfolio, or professional experience as long as you pass the test.  Earnings are posted to your Gengo account as soon as the job is approved or 5 days have transpired from the last submitted

Cons
Industry-wise, the character rate is pretty low for either test.  Also, any job or revisions that need to be made to a job must be completed before you can accept others. Jobs are timed depending on volume, which means you don’t have as much scheduling freedom as normal freelance translation work usually allows.  You may also have to pass up good jobs while you’re working the one you have or revisions for previously submitted jobs. It can get really annoying fast when you’ve got a nitpicky client.  Also, having a translator number instead of being able to use your name means it’s hard to get recognized or get added to a Gengo client’s preferred translators list.

Still, even with the cons, I’ve been having a great experience on Gengo so far.  Both community and translator support have been ace.  I’m really glad I joined.

– J

* I don’t make these wage comments as a complaint, but rather to give new translators a better idea of evaluating character rate pay and what kind of pay you should expect or strive for in the Japanese > English translation industry depending on your skill level.

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