So You Want My Job: Interpreter/Translator

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 6, 2009 · 8 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job


Today we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

For this installment, we interviewed Greg Melchior. Mr. Melchior has a job many men would find pretty exotic; he lives in Japan and works as an interpreter and translator. Thanks Greg!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it).

My name is Greg Melchior. I am 31 years old and from a small Midwestern town. I earned a BA in Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs at Miami University (OH) and did my master’s in Japanese at the University of Sheffield (UK). I have been doing my current job for five years. I have worked for two foreign governments and worked on projects including plasma mass spectrometers, movies, automobiles, consumer electronics, and financial reporting.

2. Why did you want to become an interpreter/translator? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

I have always wanted to do something that was a little out of the ordinary. I first thought that I’d like to enter the field when a friend of mine was visiting Japan with his father who is an official interpreter for the EU. The two crashed at my place for a few days to see the local sights and we would talk for hours about “the biz.” It was pretty much settled after that.

3. If man wants to become an interpreter/translator, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?

Translation and interpretation are two completely separate jobs. Translation involves the written word and strict attention must be paid to the finer linguistic details. Interpretation deals with the spoken word and as such is a much more fluid and dynamic art. You don’t have time to reach for a dictionary when communication breaks down.

There is no set route or requirements to get into either field. Solid language skills are a must. There is no real test for fluency, but a good indicator would be whether or not you can explain how to tie your shoes in a foreign language without using gestures. There are training programs for both translation and interpretation that help you to sharpen your linguistic tools for the challenges of the job. In addition to language skills, you will need specialist knowledge about a certain field. Many people want to be a “one-stop-shop,” but it boils down to the fact that you can’t translate what you can’t understand. Also, language is a living thing. It constantly changes with the addition of new phrases and cultural references so you also need a good grasp of the culture of the languages you are dealing with and current events because these have a major impact on how we communicate.

4. What is the best part of the job?

You get to meet interesting people and help them understand each other. You also get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in a wide range of industries and products before they ever hit (or don’t hit) the shelves. I’m never quite sure what is going to come across my desk next, so there is always a sense of excitement.

5. What is the worst part of the job?

Tight deadlines. The time-cost-quality triangle definitely holds true.

6. What do you like best about living in Japan? What do you miss about living in the US?

My first “real” job was here in Japan, and I have only lived here since. I have spent time in both the countryside and the city, and I enjoy the blend of traditional and modern. If you are traveling to Japan, by all means get out to the countryside.

Every so often I find myself missing greasy spoon diners where you can order breakfast at 2 am.

7. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

I would have to say that the biggest misconception people have about the job is that it just involves switching from one code to another. It isn’t that easy. Language carries with it a lot of cultural baggage. A big part of the job is finding the correct way to express the ideas and reflect the correct undertones in the target language. And no, humor does not translate well. Believe me.

8. What is the work/family balance like? How often do you get to see extended family and friends back home?

The work/family balance depends on your work arrangement. If you are freelance, you can take more time off, but your paycheck suffers. If you work in-house, you have a more corporate schedule (and there is a lot of overtime in Japan), but benefits like insurance and paid vacation days are also nice.

My wife and I used to make a yearly trip back to see my family in the US, but we now have two small sons and the trip is too taxing for them. The plane ride isn’t as bad as you’d expect, but jet-lagged toddlers don’t make for a relaxing vacation. We are thinking of meeting somewhere in the middle- Hawaii perhaps- until the boys are a little bigger.

9. Is there a hierarchy in your job? If so, how does one “move up” in the job?

“Moving up” generally depends on experience and job history. If you are freelance, you get steady clients and a reputation in the field. You could also hire a staff and become your own agency.

10. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

The most important thing is to be good at what you do and to enjoy doing it.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Trish Lewis May 7, 2009 at 3:27 am

My son-in-law – a Kurdish American – is a translator. He began translating several years ago unofficially in the Turish refugee camp he and his family were in after fleeing Sadam in northern Iraq. Later after coming to America and graduating high school (and marrying my daughter) he joined civilian contractor Titan Corporation and spent two years in northern Iraq, where he grew up, from 2003 to 2005 working with the U.S. military as a translator. Right now, he’s about to head off again to that area working for another civilian contractor but under very different circumstance, i.e., it’s reconstruction now and it’s for Army engineers as Kurdistan – as he and his fellow northern Kurdish Iraqis prefer to call the area – continue to build and prosper.. .My blog, the Waiting Place ( ) is about all the times he’s spent away from my daughter and his sons, now four of them, as he has worked overseas as an interpreter. The ‘art of manliness’ sometimes means a lot of sacrifice on not only the man’s part, but his family’s…

2 john May 8, 2009 at 9:38 pm

very nice & interesting. good luck

3 Nicholas Ferreira May 12, 2009 at 10:37 am

This is a great article. I am a professional translator and interpreter myself, and I can say that I love my job and am passionate about it. What do I like? The variety (every day something different), the challenge (I am constantly improving), the ability to learn (being paid to learn about something you don’t know is nice), and in the case of interpreting, the chance to be paid to speak all day (something I really enjoy).

Does it pay well? Depending on how and where you do it, yes, it allows you to make a very decent living.

I am a full-time translator for a translation agency, but most people who are interested get started as a freelancer. I wrote an article with some basic information on how to get started as a freelance translator if anyone is interested:

This article series is important to help us realize that our job is something we should be happy about. And in my case, I can say I am very happy with my job as a translator and interpreter.

4 Martin June 26, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I love this article, I’d love to become fluent enough in either French or Spanish to be an interpreter/translator some day.

5 Jenni March 9, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I’m doing my GCSEs at the moment and have just chosen my A levels, my school isn’t the best for languages but I’m starting a course in Japanese in September and I’m also starting an Italian GCSE short-course at the same time. I love languages and I really want to aim to be translator/interpretor. but I just don’t know what qualifications I need, (Japanese is the main language I am focusing on, but obviously the more the better) do I need a GCSE? ALevel? diploma? do I need to take courses on culture, or literature? can anyone help me plan my future?

6 emily March 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I’d Love To Be A Translator, I’m Wondering What/If You Need Any Other Specific GCSE’s/A Levels Etc.Other Than Languages.

I’m Also Wondering What The Pay Is Like?

7 rabia April 28, 2013 at 4:59 pm

im graduate with a degree in law, i want to be an interpreter in arabic and french because i like languages , i want to know what to do to realise that, thanks.

8 Fabio October 9, 2013 at 11:56 am

Very nice! Conglatulations. Im half italian/brazilian and speak bouth languages. I learned english when I lived in UK and I was looking some ideas what to do with this knowlodge. Im living in germany now and I would love work as an Interpreter/Translator.

I loved this article. I took some inhale from your life experience.


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