Posted by: patenttranslator | January 24, 2011

Germany is Winning At the Moment the War Between Japanese and German Patents

I used to translate only Japanese patents from about 1987 until about 1993. The supply of patents, technical articles and other Japanese documents needing translation was mostly plentiful during those years. In 1993, shortly after I moved from San Francisco about one hour north to the Wine Country in the fall of 1992, the bottom fell out from Japanese translation. I remember how I spent hours in the spring of 1993 driving down scenic country roads between Petaluma, Point Reyes and Bodega Bay, looking at green fields with bright yellow flowers, while sheep, horses and cows were looking back at me with feigned disinterest, because I had nothing else to do. When I came back home, there were no messages on my answering machine. That was when I started translating German as well. The rates were lower because I was working mostly for agencies back then, and it took me quite a bit longer to translate German, mostly because I did not know the technical terms in German. I am still faster when I translate technical Japanese, but not by that much anymore.

It seems that the market for Japanese technical translation is depressed for some reason again. In December of last year, which was a very slow month for me, I actually had no Japanese translations at all, only German, with a little bit of Czech and French. This month, which has been very busy so far, Japanese accounted for only about 25% of my translation work and German patents accounted for the remaining 75%. I am sure that Japanese will come back again with a roar at some point, but I would be really hurting financially if I knew only Japanese.

Why is it that translation from a certain language seems to flourish for years and years, and then, all of sudden, the feast portion of the infamous curve is replaced by the famine portion, but mostly in one language and not another one? I can’t figure it out. Is it because Germany is out of the recession now, while many other countries are not, including Japan and United States? One could call it a coincidence, but as a student and admirer of Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, I happen to think that there are actually no coincidences, not really. You can test the synchronicity theory for example on the ebb and flow of your receivables. Let’s say that a few customers owe you a few thousand dollars and all of them have been late for quite a while now. Some of them are in or near your neck of the woods, or at least in the same country, some are abroad. Then one guy finally pays, and all of them pay almost at the same time, whether they are located in Oregon, France, or Hong Kong. I have seen this dozens of times. It is not a coincidence. When everybody owes everybody else money, nobody pays because nobody is getting paid. Once one guy finally gets paid, all of a sudden everybody has a check in the mail box or a transfer in the PayPal account.

The same principle of synchronicity seems to operate also in the same manner when applied to demand for translation, and often only in certain language pairs. Once the demand for translation in a certain language and translation field slows down for some reason, and there can be a number of reasons, it can dry up almost completely for quite a while.

If a freelance translator does not have another job, language, or at least another translation field to fall back on before the demand picks up again, it can be a long wait in a cruel, lonely world.

So Germany seems to be winning the war over Japan for the time being, at least the war in the market for patent translation as it is being fought somewhere on this planet and reflected in my e-mail box and occasional phone calls from patent lawyers.

I am rooting for Japan in this patent war. Where I come from in Central Europe, just about everybody understands at least some German even if their first language is something else. Unlike Japanese, German is not that difficult to learn. If this demand for translation of German patents keeps up …. there may be too much competition out there soon from novice translators of German patents.

By my counting, it takes about four times longer to learn Japanese compared to a typical European language. That is why I am rooting for Japan in this war. I think that all things considered, there is much more job security for patent translators specializing in the Japanese language.

I hope that I will be swamped with Japanese patents again soon.


  1. Hi!

    Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed it! How about finding new clients in more general-translation areas like press releases, corporate websites or other general-content material? Of course, you’ll have to be interested in those. We all have a particular interest in something, for me it is art for example, which is why I work with French museums. You may be able to find new clients and exciting new translation jobs this way…


  2. “How about finding new clients in more general-translation areas like press releases, corporate websites or other general-content material?”

    A well designed website which contains keywords that your potential clients are likely to use when they are looking for a translation service is probably the best way these days. A blog that has these keywords can help too.

    The trick is figuring out what these key words are ……


  3. “It takes about four times longer to learn Japanese compared to a typical European language”. That’s why I never even tried to learn Japanese, even if I love how it sounds ūüė¶


  4. You don’t know what you’re missing!

    Maybe that’s why Lady Gaga does not want you to call her name anymore, Alejandro.


  5. Does anyone know much about the Korean-English patent translation market?


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