Tag: translation

A Great Question: what attorneys can learn from an NYU patent translation course

Recently, I had the honor of being invited to talk about translation in the New York University SCPS Masters in Translation program, as a guest author in Francoise Herrmann’s Patent Translation course.

The students in this class came prepared with many questions that impressed me with the depth of thought that they demonstrated. One question, however, posed by Emily Whelan, went right to the heart of a common problem in patent translation: one with dramatic consequences for both prosecution and litigation attorneys.

The class had been assigned the translation of a Belgian patent filed in 1929, which set out to improve on what was at the time a new invention: crepe-rubber shoe soles. While the early versions of this newfangled footwear were waterproof and resistant to wear, they were also so slippery that, when walking on wet ground, it was almost impossible to move forward. The solution proposed in the patent was to provide “dessins à parties saillantes et rentrantes” (patterns having raised and recessed parts) on the bottom of the sole, as shown in the drawings.


Here, the student felt that the literal translation of, “having raised and recessed parts,” made the text somewhat cumbersome. This is where both patent attorneys (who probably didn’t find anything cumbersome about “raised and recessed parts”) and ordinary translators (who probably did) should pay attention. Like all good translators, the student had learned to avoid calques, which is to say, slavish word-by-word copying of the source text, which sounds unnatural in the target language. Examples of this sort of bad translation can be found on some Chinese restaurant menus (“cooked pig with five fragrant”) and signs for tourists (“annoying parking.”) In fact, interpreting and recasting the source text in the words that seem most suitable in the target language (“five-spice roast pork”/”no parking”) is at the center of the translator’s job description. In other words, translators are trained to believe (usually with good reason) that the more they avoid using clunky, awkward phrasing, the better they are doing their jobs. In this case, the student saw the unwieldy phrase, “patterns having raised and recessed parts,” and considered replacing this with the phrase “corrugated patterns.” There is no question that “corrugated patterns” reads more smoothly and, in light of the picture above, it seemed to be fitting. Her concern was that this phrasing was much shorter than the original and might leave out some of the meaning.

The student is to be applauded. Many, if not most, ordinary translators would not have hesitated to render this as “corrugated patterns” but while this rolls nicely off the tongue, it is very far indeed from the original disclosure. The problem is that it does not cover non-corrugated arrangements that nonetheless have raised and recessed parts such as this:

or even this:



In fact, even the linear pattern having raised and recessed parts that we first saw


need not be limited to corrugated configurations, as that would exclude jagged sawtooth patterns, or irregularly-stepped linear patterns, for example.

To select an accurate translation, the translator must be aware that the drafting attorney chose claim language that was deliberately broad. Without this awareness, the best practices of non-specialized translators, who want nothing more than a comfortable reading experience for their client, often result in the scope of the description being drastically narrowed. As a result, an attorney reading only the text of the translation could be led to believe that the patent does not disclose non-corrugated patterns.

A great deal of patent language sounds unnatural, verbose and stilted to the uninitiated, and this routinely leads to excessive editorial smoothing in lower-quality patent translations. 

Universities offering courses in patent translation are still relatively rare, but it is good to know that NYU is doing its part in making the word of translations a little safer for attorneys. 


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.


Sorry for the acronym string. I couldn’t resist.

MIP (Managing Intellectual Property) is a trade journal out of London that does a good job of providing global coverage. They have a free newsletter called MIP Week, which is perfect for people like me, who want to stay abreast but are too cheap and lazy to read the whole magazine.

Yesterday they had more on a story that they originally reported in April — specifically, a translation breakthrough for Community Patents. The idea is to start granting European patents, without demanding that applicants provide translations into all 23 official languages. People wanting to read the patent could then use a proposed MT (machine translation) system. Interestingly, MIP reports that the translations would have no legal value, and that for the 1% of patents that are litigated (man, that’s a lot of litigated patents) human translations would prevail.

I can certainly imagine some juicy courtroom arguments when they start litigating patents without predetermined translations. It also makes me wonder about enforcement. If I spent money developing something that my research (reading MTed patents at the EPO) told me is not protected, and then I got sued for infringement because it turns out the MT translation was inaccurate, I would certainly feel mistreated. If my due diligence is expected to extend to procuring an accurate translation by myself, then the EPO is transferring translation costs to industry. If, on the other hand, due diligence doesn’t extend that far, why should I be penalized?

In any case, it should be fun. It makes me wish I were a European legal translator.

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