Category: Articles For Translators

What’s Right Is Right

“In the end, isn’t translation a matter of personal opinion?”

Construction in Progress (photo by Jurvetson [flickr])

The question was thrown at me by an attorney for the other side who hoped what she was saying was true. If it were, and translations could only be evaluated in the same way we make decisions about fashion or flavors of ice-cream, then the one she had in her hand would be just as valid as the one that my client had submitted.

Obviously, the answer is, “No.” But the question the attorney put to me is an interesting one, and deserves a longer answer. For one thing, this wasn’t the first time I had heard it. The notion that translation is a nebulous art, ill suited to clear rules or standards, is not uncommon, especially among those who have a little multilingual knowledge. That said, I have been working in technical and legal translation for more than a quarter of a century and, outside of the very special context of a court room, where some people can be particularly disinclined to change their minds, I have never seen two translators remain in disagreement over the proper translation of a phrase for more than a few minutes. Invariably, a short discussion is enough to satisfy one of the translators that the other is right, and an evidence-based consensus is quickly achieved.

So where do non-translators (and even some novice translators) get the notion that there is no such thing as a wrong answer?

Part of it comes from the general idea that language itself is mysterious. It is, after all, amazing that so many of us manage to generate complex and flawless grammatical structures without even knowing the rules. (Be honest, gentle reader, if I were to ask you to give an example of the future subjunctive mood, would you be able to do so?) And then there is our awareness of the ambiguity that pervades our communication. If you have ever spent time with a teenager who has just learned how to tell “That’s what she said” jokes, you will know that there are very few short utterances that cannot be taken in two ways.

Another potential source of confusion is bilingual dictionaries. The entry for the French word “adhésif,” for example, is likely to include such English translations as, not only “adhesive” and “glue,” but also “sticker” and “seal.” If they are all listed in the dictionary, who is to say which one is correct?

Going further, even amateur translators will have come across situations in which the same idea can be expressed in two different ways. There is not much difference between saying that, “the cargo is carried by the vehicle” and saying that “the vehicle carries the cargo.” Both are possible, so isn’t the translator’s preference the ultimate arbitrator?

There are two fallacies at work here. The first lies in assuming that, because human choice is involved, the choice is inherently arbitrary. The second is imagining that, because more than one possible correct translation can be conceived,  all translations must be correct.

In any form of complex communication, ambiguity increases as the sample length decreases. One bit could mean anything, and a handful of bytes in a data transmission is generally useless without knowing which packet it came from. So while it is true that an “elongate member,” mentioned by itself, might mean any number of things to a thirteen year old, when we hear that it is “eccentrically coupled to a rotary drive means,” the possible interpretations narrow significantly. Context, in short, determines which readings are right and which are clearly wrong.

It is also context that tells us which of the many terms in the bilingual dictionary will be appropriate. Even if “sticker” is one of the terms listed under the entry for “adhésif,” it is simply incorrect to translate “collés par un adhésif liquide” as “bonded by a liquid sticker.”

The question of how to select the most suitable phrasing is a little too complex to address in a blog post, but is covered in some detail in my chapter on literal translation in the ATA Patent Translator’s Handbook. Suffice it to say, there are rules and, while there may be more than one possible right answer, there are also unquestionably wrong answers.

Forming an option is indeed part of the translation process, but not all options, or translations, are equal.


Is there a translator in the house?

Translators are required to make hundreds of judgments every day. Some of these are analytical judgments, which call on the translator to come to conclusions based on limited evidence. That means answering questions like this:

  • what is the author trying to get across?
  • what does this term mean in this particular context?
  • does this adjective modify the whole noun phrase or just the noun in that phrase that is closest to it?
  • what is the implied agent in this passive construction?

Other judgments are prescriptive, which is to say that they concern the conventions of the target language, and include questions like:

  • what is the best term to express this concept in this context?
  • what tense should this be written in? (when there are tenses that exist in the source language but not the target language or vice-versa)
  • should I use plural markers, singular markers, or no number markers at all? (again, not all languages have the same options)

These sorts of questions are of particular importance in cases where the wording of the translation is likely to be scrutinized. Legal translations are an obvious example, but translators of poetry or advertising copy may spend even more time struggling with these decisions.

Most of the time, the answers are obvious or can be determined with a bit of research but there also exist cases of genuine ambiguity in the source language or lack of consensus in the target language. In such cases it may almost seem that there is nothing for it but to flip a coin, but a professional translator is obviously obliged to come to a reasoned decision.

This situation is, in fact, analogous to that faced by doctors on a regular basis. Just as a translator may encounter a sentence that they cannot understand, even after consulting all of their dictionaries and the Oracle of Delphi Google, a doctor may encounter a patient with symptoms that are not clearly indicative of any one particular illness, even after various diagnostic tests. Or, just as a translator may understand a phrase but be unsure of the best way to render in the target language, a doctor may know exactly what is wrong with a patient but hesitate when it comes to the best treatment.

In such situations the doctor will seek a second opinion, and the translator’s best course of action is to do exactly the same. At Patent Translations Inc. we are fortunate enough to work in teams, so there is always a native speaker, or a technical specialist, or a legal expert to consult. It is not uncommon for us to have three or four people discussing one particular term or phrase. But many freelance translators do not have this support. Fortunately, it is possible for freelancers to build their own support network.

There are many places where translators routinely support each other in this way, such as the Honyaku list for J-E translations, the Japanese Patent Translation List and  the Patent Translators list, which is for all languages, but tends to deal with a lot of German. Proz is also a good place to ask questions and get answers. Keep in mind that, whichever forum you use, your question is likely to get the most attention if you have a reputation for answering other people’s questions.

It is also possible to go to non-translators for an opinion, but just as the doctor will be reluctant to ask the advice of a non-doctor, there is good reason to seek the advice of another translator first. The trouble with muggles is that they are likely to tell you that it doesn’t matter which word you choose (engineers are particularly guilty of linguistic indifference) or to suggest a radically different phrasing, or even a different technical solution to the one described. In short, they rarely “get” what the job of a translator is.

One last source of counsel, which should not be overlooked, is the person or company ordering the translation, particularly if this is a translation agency.

Wherever you turn for your second opinion, remember that asking is a sign of strength, not weakness, and that small-group consensus is the mainstay of almost every profession that relies on judgment.

So you wanna be a patent translator…

I recently got an email from a fellow who is interested in a career in patent translation and I thought I would help to rectify the lamentable lack of posts on this blog by answering it in public.

I get quite a few letters of this sort every year, so it is not the first time I have considered the question. In fact, I gave a talk on the subject at the ATA Conference in New York. But the New York talk was directed at people who were already working as translators and who wanted to move into patent translation. The gentleman who wrote me recently, on the other hand, was a student, still plotting out his career path.

So here is my advice to people who are considering the career from a distance. The very first step has to be determining whether or not you like translating. Me? I can’t think of a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Given the choice between translating and almost any other gainful activity, I’ll translate (which is why this blog never gets updated). When I was first married, and my wife and I were living in Italy, I used to love sitting at the breakfast table translating Italian newspaper articles into Japanese for her. Nowadays, I am learning Chinese, and my idea of a self-indulgent Sunday treat is laying on the sofa with a Chinese book and my iPhone dictionary.

But I am also aware that I am not entirely normal. A lot of people, in fact, the vast majority of people, hate it. I have had many ex-patriot friends who have tried it and said things like, “I would rather have my fingernails ripped out, in the rain, while listening to ABBA.” Other people, including one or two professional translators of my acquaintance, while not seeing translation as an actual form of torture, tell me that they find it so dull that, for several hours after translating, they cannot safely operate heavy machinery.

It would be a shame to make a career plan only to find out that translation is not your cup of tea. And unlike lawyering or brain surgery, you don’t have to wait until you have established yourself as a professional translator to find out whether you like it. You can start at the hobby level by translating books for which translations already exist and comparing your efforts against those of the pros. With a little practice, you can even start marketing your skills to the bottom-tier translation agencies, which care more about price than experience. It will not be long until you know whether or not you have a vocation.

There is more to say on this topic, but I’ll have to put that in a second installment.

ATA Patent Translator’s Handbook



v Preface
vii Introduction
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3 Approaches to Patent Translation: Many Ways to Build a Mousetrap Kirk Anderson
11 An Introduction to Patent Translation Nicholas Hartmann
19 Literal Translation of Patents Martin Cross
29 Industrial Property Considerations for Patent Translators R. Vivanco Cohn
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41 Internet Resources for the Translation of Patents Into English Steve Vlasta Vitek
49 Developing a Lean, Mean Patent Translation Memory Suzanne Friis Gagliardi
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57 Managing Patent Litigation Projects Alison Carroll and Lillian Clementi
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75 Translating Biotech Patents Alice M. Berglund
85 Intellectual Property and Biotechnology Patents Patricia Thickstun
97 Translating Automotive Patents Gabe Bokor
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115 Live and Learn: Lessons from a Veteran Patent Translation
Team: An interview with Jan McLin Clayberg and Olaf Bexhoeft
Conducted bv Alison Carroll and Lillian Clementi
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119 Glossary of Patent Terms Martin Cross
129 German-English Glossary of “Patentese” Jan McLin Clayberg
135 Biotechnology Glossary for Patent Translators Patricia Thickstun
151 Index

After a lot of hard work, especially on the part of Alison Carroll, our editor, The Patent Translator’s Handbook is now on sale. The book is a compendium of knowledge by some of the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable patent translators and translation managers and includes an introduction by a patent attorney who is also a translator.

Although there are a number of books written in Japanese on the subject of patent translation, and the ATA publishes the Japanese Patent Translation Handbook, which is written in English, The Patent Translator’s Handbook is the first book written in English on the subjection of patent translation from all languages into English. A number of the contributors translate from German and there are even some German-English glossaries, but the book’s authors also translate from French, Japanese and Spanish and the chapters are written with translators of any language in mind.

The book is, first and foremost, a how-to guide for patent translators, with ample introductory information for the novice, but it also provides a formal definition of literal translation in the context of patents and a methodology for producing and evaluating translations according to this methodology. We can expect this to become a touchstone for law firms that manage their own translation and a reference in litigation where translation is an issue. There is also a chapter on managing translation for litigation, which every patent paralegal who works on multinational cases should read. In fact, I have already had calls from a few large law firms asking where they could buy a copy.

To answer that question, the best way is to order it online from the ATA. If you are wary of entering your credit card information online, you can also call the ATA at 03-683-6100.

My own chapter, which is on literal translation, can be viewed online in the Resources section of the Patent Translations Inc. web site. I also contributed the glossary of patent terminology, and I hope to make that available online soon.

I am planning to blog in more detail about the individual sections and chapters but, for the moment, I’ll just post the table of contents to pique your interest — assuming that you are the sort of person whose interest is piqued by this sort of thing.

Their worst work is my best work

If you ever get a translation of a published patent from me that is full of run-on sentences, inconsistent terminology and weak logic, you may just be looking at my best work.

When translating patents for information or litigation support, our job of is like that of a court interpreter — we reproduce what was said without omission or embellishment and strive to make ourselves invisible. Our clients would not be well served if we added matter to fill in the gaps in an incomplete disclosure, or if we took on the role of editor so that the translated claims seemed better supported by the specification than they were in the original. And though it might be tempting to unify disparate terminology, by doing so, we could be denying our client a useful argument against the patent or — if our client is on the other side — producing a false sense of security that risks being shattered by a more accurate translation when used in court.

To the non-translator, turning bad writing in one language into bad writing in another might appear to be a simple task, perhaps even easier than producing a polished final product from a high quality original, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Imagine, if you will, a carpenter who is given a bookshelf and asked to produce a copy of it. If the joints are square and the screws are driven straight, then all that will be required of the craftsman is good carpentry. But if the original workmanship is shoddy, the task of faithful reproduction becomes much more difficult. The slope of a crooked shelf must be exactly matched. Nails that were carelessly bent over by a badly wielded hammer must be meticulously bent into that same shape with pliers. Finally, the overall structure of the copy, which is the sum of the individual flaws, must be just as rickety as the original, but no more so.

It’s the “no more so” part that is really hard. The translation must be readable . The information must be conveyed as clearly as possible. But as with any other form of reproduction, translation necessarily results in signal-to-noise loss, and part of the translator’s job is to compensate for this, so that the clarity of communication in the translation is comparable to that in the original. As anyone who has photocopied a faded fax will know, the loss is always tends to be more pronounced if you start with a low-quality original. That is why people who are new to translation sometimes produce gobbledygook that sounds as if it were written by the inmate of a mental hospital and, when questioned, reply with the familiar words, “But that’s what it says in the original.” The true skill of the translator lies in being able to reproduce the original content, without omission or embellishment, while maintaining the clarity and internal logic of the original, no matter how sketchy that may be. If you are interested in a methodology for doing this, read on.

Matters are made worse by the fact that sloppy writing is often the handmaiden of sloppy thinking. Badly worded specifications are also likely to include conclusions that do not follow from their premises, internal contradictions, misclassifications and straightforward misstatements of fact. A good translator will be extremely reluctant to reproduce such problems without first carefully double-checking and then seeking a second opinion from a colleague, to be sure that the error is, in fact, in the original writing and not in their understanding of it. In addition, when the technology being described is complex, these problems can make it much more difficult for the translator to fully grasp the invention being described.

Unfortunately, for monolingual purchasers of patent translations, it is very hard, if not impossible, to determine whether the badly written document on their desk is a well written specification that was badly translated, or a badly written specification that was expertly translated. In this regard, one can rely only on long relationships and trust. But if it comes off my desk, and it is less than elegant, rest assured that it is a carefully crafted labor of love.

Martin Cross
Japanese Patent Translation

Too many cooks

I once translated a priority document together with another translator. We used a translation of the priority document, which had long ago been filed with the USPTO, as our common terminology reference (that way both of us would use the same terms in our translations).

The translation published by the USPTO was probably done by a junior staff member in a Japanese law firm. I say that because the wacky English could never have been produced by a native speaker. I say ‘junior’ staff member because the translation was not consistent. In places, really bad expressions had been fixed, but they had been fixed into English that is still idiomatically incorrect, which suggests review by a senior member of the Japanese firm.

Where it got interesting was in the claims, where the corrections had clearly made by a US attorney. While you could see how what was written in the translation could have led a monolingual reader to imagine that was what was being said, it didn’t actually match up with the original Japanese.

The end result was an application with claims for something other than what the client had original claimed. What is more, the claims as drafted in English were not supported by the translated description in the specification as filed.

This was a job that was being done at at distance and I know nothing about the party who requested the translation, so I don’t know whether they were challenging the patent (and therefore delighted by what they saw in the accurate translation) or defending the patent (and therefore crestfallen).

At PTI we have a multi-person editing system as well, sometimes with as many as four people (lead translator, checker, technical expert, legal expert, proofreader, etc.) making changes to a translation, but as the second-last step in the editing process is a translation checking step that includes verifying consistency of both terminology and substantive meaning,  problems like these could never occur.

Japanese patent law firms could achieve a similar effect just by having the Japanese attorney who reviewed the junior staff member’s translation read the US attorney’s version of the claims against the original.  It would be interesting to know how often this happens.

Trying Work

Recently I’ve been translating a lot of litigation support stuff. Usually, when you say those words in translation circles, the images that come to mind are of boxes containing ten thousand pages of handwritten discovery documents that need to be translated in two days. What I am doing this time is a little different. I’m translating demands for trials, briefs, petitions and opinions for patent litigation that is being conducted in Japanese on behalf of English speaking people who need to keep up to speed with the trial and give their input. It’s fun.

For one thing, you get to watch the law in action. I write and present quite a bit on how to go about producing exact translations of patents and why conserving word choice is essential. I meet with a certain amount of skepticism and resistance from people who either do not believe that word choice can be translated, or who cannot believe that word choice really matters that much. They have obviously never followed a patent trial. It’s all about the words. And watching a trial unfold makes the reasons for the word choices by the drafting attorneys come alive.

The other thing is that it is easy. I translate a lot of Japanese office actions. Perhaps out of a desire to save ink at the JPO, examiners write their reasons for rejection in staccato verse, referencing bits and pieces of the application and and prior art and snippets of the law without explanation or elaboration. The poor translator, much like the poor applicant, has to hunt through the cited references, the Patent Law and JPO examination guidelines to understand what is being said. It’s time consuming and, for the most part, boring. Odd, but there is no passion in an patent examiner’s writing style. Trial documents are another story.

Literally. The thing is that they actually do tell a story, and the attorneys are at pains to make that story as engaging and convincing as possible. One thought leads to another. Themes are repeated and amplified. There is logical and narrative consistency. OK, it’s not Shakespeare and I admit that I should probably get a life, but if I have to sit there reading and reproducing text eight hours a day, it’s nice when it’s well written text.

Martin Cross
Japanese Patent Translation