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.



It’s official. I will have the pleasure of presenting at this year’s International Japanese English Translation (IJET) Conference in our home town of Seattle.

I am particularly looking forward to this, as this will be the first time that I will do a presentation with someone else, as a team effort. My partner is Masa Kajiki, who runs MK Translation Firm in Osaka, and is an exceptionally talented translator in his own right.

The presentation is called: Beyond Translation for Information: How to Become Indispensable in J to E Patent Translation for Filing and Litigation, and the blurb reads as follows.

“This seminar will explain what US and Japanese attorneys are looking for in both translations for filing and translations for litigation support. We will present a methodology for meeting the requirements of literal translation, as well as strategies for dealing with particularly difficult constructions in translations for filing, which are rarely seen outside of the patent field.

The session will include a short workshop, in which attendees will be asked to try their hands at some classic J>E patent translation stumpers and evaluate the possible solutions. People are also invited to email us in advance (cross@patenttranslations.com) with difficult phrases and patent-specific terms that they would like to see discussed.

This session is best suited for translators who already have some experience in the field of patents or who have attended seminars covering the basics of patent translation in the past.”

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.

The Rise of the Machines

… when will they get around to it?

Recently I have been reviewing new entrants (here and here) to the Computer Assisted Translation market. If you read that stuff you will have noticed a jaded and dissatisfied air to my comments. The truth is, I have been waiting, for some time, to be made at least quasi-redundant by a CAT package that is to translation what the word processor was to typing. No such luck. Translation still relies almost entirely on the neurons inside my head, which is a shamefully inefficient way to get things done. I remain, like both Siddhartha Gotama and Mick Jagger, dissatisfied.

Then, a bit more than a week ago, an acquaintance from the big bad world of patent translation, who I hadn’t spoken with in years, contacted me to let me know that she was doing some market research for another new player in the CAT field. This is Kilgray Translation Technologies, an outfit I had never heard of before. My friend was asking translators and agencies what their wish list for a CAT tool would be. Rather than making things simple, and just answering the good lady’s question, I decided to blog it.

My CAT Wish List

  1. Runs in MS Word (or perfect mimic)
  2. Does automatic pre-look-ups in both dictionaries and concordance
  3. Stores glossary/dictionary word choice
  4. Semi-automatically adds to glossary
  5. Capable of MT pre-processing entire document
  6. Able to recreate related documents
  7. Capable of running in dedicated editing mode
  8. Runs in the cloud
  9. Provides assisted consistency checker
  10. Runs automatic errors and omissions check

Boy, now that I look at it in black and white, I can see that I am greedy. The awful thing is, I held back. There are a few ideas that I feel too possessive about to describe in a public blog, and several others that I left out because I didn’t want you to think I was spoiled and lazy.

In more detail:

1. Runs in MS Word (or perfect mimic)
I have macros that involve several hundred lines of code. My translation environment needs to be able to run them. If the CAT tool is an independent environment, it has to run VBA. I also want to be able to format as I edit, and I want to be able to edit in my translation environment. (See 7.)

2. Does automatic pre-look-ups in both dictionaries and concordance
In this day and age, it is shameful for me to have to copy and paste a word into a dictionary, nor do I want to wait more than 100 milliseconds for my CAT program to provide me with answers. CAT programs should scour all possible sources for all the words and phrases in the upcoming sentences and store the results in working memory. When I select a word in the source text, I should see pop-ups for, not only for the CAT glossary entries, but also any external dictionaries and concordance searches.

3. Stores glossary/dictionary word choice
The program should be automatically monitoring and storing my word choices. If I translate “port” as “door” in one segment, the first choice offered to me when I select that word in a subsequent segment should be “door.” And, please, I don’t want to have to do anything to make that happen. If the tool can’t figure out what word in the source corresponds to what word in the target, it’s not much of a tool.

4. Semi-automatically adds to glossary
In keeping with the above, if I make a glossary/concordance/dictionary inquiry for a term in the source, and it is not in the CAT glossary, or my chosen translation is not in the CAT glossary, I should be given the chance to add my translation to the CAT glossary with a single key stroke.

5. Capable of MT pre-processing entire document
It should be easy to ask the program to pre-segment the entire document then run MT on the pre-segmented text. This way, I can use search and replace to forward edit the MT results.

6. Able to recreate related documents
When I open a document, the program should analyze the entire document (in the background, please, I don’t ever want to be asked to wait while the CAT tool thinks) and determine if there are other similar documents that have been translated in the past. If so — if the number of 100% matches attributable to some other source document is beyond a threshold value — it should recreate said documents from the TM and load them in a separate window so that I can look at them. This would be like concordance just on a bigger scale.

7. Capable of running in dedicated editing mode
This one is key. In the translation of patents, the matching function of CAT tools is actually not that useful. Sometimes, when one is translating a family of patents (in house translators will see a lot of this), you will get a lot of hits, and of course the headings are all hits, but most of the time 75%+ matches are rare. So the main point of CAT tools for organizations like PTI is the clear presentation of the source and the target in discrete units. This makes it less likely that the translator will overlook any portion of the text. It allows the translator to easily and accurately reference the source when reviewing their own work. It allows the checker to visually compare the source and target without being distracted by the surrounding text. And it allows the translator to instantly verify the legitimacy of changes made by the checker.

That said, most CAT tools suck as editing platforms. For example, using the Track Changes function is essential to meaningful collaborative editing, but in standalone CAT platforms track changes functionality is either unavailable or requires a separate comparison step which is subject to errors. Working within MS Word, it is necessary to activate and deactivate Track Changes every time you advance to the next segment. We have a macro to do this automatically but it is hard to get freelance checkers and editors to use macros. There is also a problem with segment markers, which can easily be damaged by editors.

A good CAT tool will be a robust editing environment, allowing for editing segment by segment, with completely transparent segment marker protection, track changes functionality, commenting and other advanced bilingual editing. I’m not even going to get started on what I mean by other advanced bilingual editing.

8. Runs in the cloud
It is awful to have to deploy software on another person’s machine. It doesn’t work right, or they have a different version, or they don’t know how to use it and can’t explain why. Collaborative solutions have to run in the cloud.

9. Provides assisted consistency checker
There are various tools for checking terminology consistency in CAT platforms. The problem is that they are all active solutions. You have to set rules and/or run checks. A good program would provide passive consistency checking by noticing terminology usage and, at the moment that an inconsistency arose within one document, alerting the translator. A really good program would automate or semi-automate the correction.

Is that too much to ask?

Yeah, probably. A lot of this functionality requires that the CAT tool provide word-level analysis while operating at the segment level. It’s totally doable. I know this because I have written macros that provide that sort of functionality within the Wordfast environment. But, with the notable exception of Snowball, most CAT tools don’t even want to go there. If it is on the word level, they want you manually indicate your choices. In my opinion, that is precisely the sort of drudgery that computers were sent here to eliminate.

My ideal CAT program also requires a simple, robust, unobtrusive and intuitive user interface (think Mac) and, unfortunately, CAT tool developers have got it into their heads that translators are fine with fiddly, complex interfaces with eighteen windows, and nine pre-processing steps. And it’s true, many of us are nerds. But if it takes more than ten minutes to be up on running on something, it cannot really be deployed across the board in the sort of short term collaborations that are bog-standard in the translation industry.

Hmmm, I set out to write a Wish List but, coming to the end, I’ve got to say the tone is closer to Manifesto. Oh well, it can’t be helped, comrades.