Mar 31, 2011

Patently specialized

(Contribution by the mad patent translator, Steve Vitek)

I promised to write a guest blog for Kevin Lossner about translation of patents. What he had in mind was some useful advice for talented people who may be just starting out and who are wondering whether to specialize in patents or try a different field.

I thought it was a good idea, so here it is. I have been translating mostly patents for the last 24 years, so hopefully I have learned something useful about patent translation in all that time. I mostly translate Japanese patents as I am by training what they call in Europe a "Japanologist" (MS Word spell checker flagged the word), since I received my degree in Japanese studies from the Charles University in Prague. I mostly work directly for patent law firms who send me mostly Japanese patents and German patents, but also some in French and other languages. In addition to patents, I translate all kinds of documents as well, such as personal documents and legal briefs, documents for antitrust litigation, etc.

Some people may think that if they have a degree in liberal arts, they should not even attempt to translate patents. This is true to some extent - if you never enjoyed for instance your high school classes in physics or chemistry or other sciences, maybe you should stay away from patents. It's not that you cannot translate them because you don't like sciences, you probably still could do that, but would you really want to spend the rest of your life doing something that you don't enjoy?
The so-called "patent translation field" is not really a field because the subject is just too broad.
Patents are issued for anything and everything. Huge machines such as cranes or nuclear reactors, or sexy bra designs (which is really about mechanical engineering, geometry and some chemistry) and new age jewelry to be placed strategically on a short skirt - these are just some topics that I have been and you may be dealing with as a patent translator. Patent applications have been written about software, hardware, soup extracts, methods for growing mushrooms or cheese in your basement. I have not seen a patent for growing marihuana yet, but if they legalize it, the chances are that I will be translating it from some language if I live that long. You don't have to translate all patents in all fields, you can choose to stay away from some fields, such as medical devices or pharmaceuticals, or you can specialize mostly in patents dealing with medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

Although we generally cannot call the patent agent or inventor who wrote a patent application and ask them questions about the text, the advantage of patents is that we can find context easily for just about any patent, for example on the European Patent Office, or the Japan Patent Office or French Patent Office website and other websites. The American Translators Association published a few years ago the Second Edition of The Patent Translator's Handbook which should be still available from them for about 50 dollars. If it is sold out, you can read my chapter in it called "Internet Resource for the Translation of Patents Into English" for free on my blog. I also have other blogs dedicated to patent translation, such as a description of my experience with machine translation of patents from Japanese, or a test of the Google Translate function, which I found quite disappointing. Two very useful articles about translation of German patents were written for the Translation Journal some time ago by Kriemhild Zerling (

So what it is that you need to know as a patent translator? As a patent translator, you have to understand basic legal concepts and terms used in patents. You have to understand what a claim is, you have to know for example that one claim has to be described only in one sentence, no matter how long it is, and silly little things like that. You have to learn the meaning of magic terms and concepts like "prior art" or "inventive step", but contrary to popular belief, there is not really that much that you need to learn as far as the legal terminology is concerned. A good translator can learn these things on the job, so to speak. But you'd better learn them quickly or you will never have any clients.
You can also refer to machine translations into English available on the Japan Patent Office Website for unexamined Japanese patent applications since 1993, or to machine translations on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which can be used with Google Translate for machine translations from and into more than 30 languages. But remember, machine translations are not really translations - a machine will find words in another language based on an algorithm which really represents only a probable match. The machine has no idea what these words mean because only humans have ideas.

There are tricks that patent translators sometime develop while trying to stay sane, which is not that easy if you translate mostly patents. Especially Japanese patents can still drive me crazy sometime, even after all those years and thousands of patents. One trick that I can recommend to budding Japanese patent translators is really just something that common sense should tell you: You don't have to start from the beginning if the beginning is the most difficult part of the document, especially since the paragraphs are numbered. Unlike European patents, Japanese patents start with the claims, and monster Japanese sentences of continuous text in long claims can be very disorienting at first because in the beginning you are still trying to establish the technical terms. Start from "Prior Art" and "Detailed Description" and translate the claims at the end. However, since claims are often woven into the text of the "Specifications" several times, starting just after the introduction, this solution sometime does not work very well.

Another trick that I use when I can't figure out a discombobulated Japanese or German sentence is remembering the English translation of title of the patent application, which is often a complete sentence, and trying to visualize how the description of that concept can be applied to long, rambling and at first incomprehensible sentences. I find this visualizing technique very helpful. I think that we translators often make mistakes when we forget what it is that we are translating because we are concentrated so much on the meaning of just a few words that don't seem to make sense. When that happens, we can't see the forest for the trees. It really helps to keep in mind the purpose of the entire exercise.

If you are considering translating patents as a career, you can start with little steps. Don't accept long and complicated patents at first. Start with short and reasonably simple patents at first in a field that is not completely unfamiliar to you, many if not most patent applications will fall into this category. As you gain more experience, you will be better able to handle more complicated subject matters and the strange wording typical of "patentese" in any language.

If you are afraid that patents will be soon translated by Google Translate or some other machine translation software, I would not worry about it. The results of the influence of machine translation may differ depending on the field, but I am certain that the main result of machine translation in the field of patent translation will be that as more patents are identified with machine translation, more and more of them will eventually have to be translated by humans when a real translation is needed.
Good Luck!


  1. Thanks Kevin for introducing me to such an interesteing blogger and translator' such as Steve.

    As a new-comer in the field of patent translations, I've found some of Steve's articles to be quite helpful.

    I'd like to use your blog to ask you and Steve about your general opinion (or recommendation) on accepting MT projects -which is something that I've already refused from a client that had sent me several "standard" patent translations before- as I see that he has some experience on the matter after many years in the business.

  2. Steve had an interesting post recently on MT and how he "uses" the results for some of his work. It's worth reading.

    For my work, MT has no value, and I'd rather swallow rat poison before I torture my eyes and mind with trash results from that type of technology. While I can see some limited value for MT as a crude screening and selection tool for clients, it has nothing real to offer to a serious professional translator today.


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