Job description: sitting and staring

Aspiring translators, remember that translation -as a paid job- is a marathon, and you need to prepare yourself for it, physically and mentally.

One of the most famous comic artists in Italy is Milo Manara (possibly because his refined erotic style makes him reassuringly non-childish for intellectuals). Anyway, one surprising thing he mentions in all his interviews is how exhausting his job can be.

Because his work is all in the details. For the drawing of the pretty undressed lady to be captivating, she needs to be sitting on a perfectly realistic, painstakingly detailed chair. The whole world surrounding her must be impeccable to sell you the illusion. And that takes time and effort.

In many ways, this happens in game writing too. People will remember that killer one liner at the end, but what makes that possible, what made people care in the first place, is the tons of world-building that brought them there. And it is tons because interaction dictates that most of the text will not be seen by a single player. Keeping the illusion of freedom means that the game must have stashes of world-building material ready at any time, just in case.

That puts the wordcount of the average AAA game on par with a Harry Potter novel. That is surely a concern for game writers, but doubly so for game translators, due to deadlines.

TitleWordcount
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix257,045 words
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince168,923 words
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban107,253 words

The rule of thumb is that a translator will be able to finalize about 2500 words per day (English to western languages, but averages to/from Japanese are equivalent). Since localization has to be squeezed into the precious little window when the game is almost done, that theoretical value becomes the base for schedules. It's a given, to the point that the question often isn't "How many words do we need?" but "How many translators do we need to make the deadline?". But theoretical averages have little sympathy for real life.

Meeting your 2500 words for the project usually means about 6 hours of full, undivided attention. Day after day, sit still, open your eyes and compare the source with dozens of possible translations. Next line, repeat. Hundreds of micro-decisions per hour, thousands per day.

It's creative work, but also deeply logical. When you are in the flow, it all becomes instinctive, but when people ask me about a specific translation, I can always track down the reasoning that led me to it (and they expect me to).

It's marvelous, but mentally exhausting. At the end of a productive day, you feel burned out and confused, almost as if you were drunk. At the end of a productive week, it takes almost monastic levels of determination to sit down and grind more.

"We aren't exactly working steel-mill shifts around here"

Since I do tend to repeat myself, I know that reactions at this point often break in two fields: the skeptics, that point out that we aren't exactly working steel-mill shifts around here, and the combative, that blame ineffective and exploitative project managers for overburdening translators.

Obviously there are many jobs way more physically taxing than sitting down at home in your bunny slippers. And over-stretching yourself, accepting more work than you can handle is a sure-fire way to break down in any line of work.

But even then, even with all the ideal conditions in place, it's still complex intellectual work requiring attention and precision, not unlike being an accountant, or a lawyer. And you expect them to be tired.

My point in all this? If you want to become a translator, embrace the simple truth that you will be sitting down in deep concentration for the rest of your professional life, and plan your favorite way to compensate, both physically and mentally.

The best compromise for me was hiking, since it combines exercise, mental relaxation and an healthy dose of "looking further than 30 cm in front of my nose" but I know quite a few localizers that dabble in acting, community services and so on. In the end, it's all about your tastes, just in other areas of life.

Have a great career and take care.