Apr 21, 2009

Risk considerations for translating patents

Martin Cross, president of Patent Translations Inc. and co-author of the American Translator Association's Patent Translator's Handbook maintains the blog Translating Patents, which, though infrequent in its posts, often has excellent information. Martin published an article last autumn on IPToday.com discussing the management of patent translation risks, which is very worthwhile to read whether you are a translator or an individual possibly in need of patent translation services.

In the article, Mr. Cross discusses strategies for determining where one can save on translation costs and where doing so could be a disaster. Importantly, he also repeatedly mentions that patent translations which are most reliable and are of the highest quality are inevitably those reviewed by at least a second person competent in the language and subject matter. No surprise there, but it is depressing to see how seldom this principle is applied effectively. Review by persons who do not have competence in the subject and language is also of limited value: since the beginning of the year I have been asked on a number of occasions to review chemical patents which I know have been checked by two good translators and an attorney, and I have found serious linguistic and terminological issues with every one of these. Two Germans and a French person, none of whom are chemists, just can't ensure the accuracy that a native English-speaking chemist can for a patent translated into English. No way. They can find omissions and typographical errors and question apparent inconsistencies, but I wouldn't push it beyond that.

Obviously there are many people who disagree with me on this point, and one often finds translations - especially of patent abstracts - on the Internet which are drawn straight from the sewer of competence. If these are used as sources of terminology one should be very, very careful.

Mr. Cross also wrote a relevant essay describing the joys of producing bad text in translation: "Their worst work is my best work". It's a fun and useful read for those not familiar with the quirks odf patent translation.


  1. Agreed; 100%. One needs to stick to one's areas of specialization -- I think we have an ethical and professional obligation to do so. That's why we don't touch patents with a 10-foot pole. We gladly send those to our chemical/medical translator friends, many of whom specialize in patent translation.

  2. My considerable experience has enabled me to specialize in correcting the mistranslations of fellow Japanese-to-English patent translators. I have found fewer than 5% of them to be reliably scrupulous, and can but pity the companies that depend on their translations in IP battles.


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