Posted by: patenttranslator | March 2, 2011

Servile Imitation May Be The Best Translation Depending on Your Field of Translation

Servile imitation (sklavische Nachahmung in German, which literally means “slavish imitation” in German, imitation servile in French, and 引き写し or 敷写し[hikiutsushi or shikiutsushi], literally “tracing” in Japanese), is a term from intellectual property law which is based on laws against unfair competition. Servile imitation occurs when a company imitates a successful product of a competitor to create confusion in the mind of a customer who will then buy a product thinking that he is buying something else. This “something else” is usually a more expensive, very high quality product of a well known manufacturer. It happens all the time and the laws on the books are probably not easy to enforce. For example a few years ago I bought at Sam’s Club a mini audio system for our kitchen that looked just like Bose Wave music systems, which start at 500 dollars and which can cost well over a thousand dollars. The pretty little gadget that I bought for 200 dollars, I think, was barely functional and it was no Bose. The sound was nothing to write about on your blog, and the CD player was unusable because it kept cutting off and starting again. Obviously, it was made in China.

To create confusion in the mind of the customers is in fact what advertising is all about. And it is certainly working as the customers are confused about all kinds of things, including translation.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a patent lawyer who wanted to know my rates and other particulars about my translation services, such as who does the translation and whether this person knows, for example, what a claim in a patent means. And then he said: “Do you provide translation or mechanical translation?”.

It took me about a second to figure out that by “mechanical translation” he meant machine translation. Perhaps he ordered machine translation first and now he needed to figure out what was really in that Japanese patent. So I explained to him that our translations,  are real translations that are indeed done by humans rather than machines, and that Japanese patents in particular are done by a very experienced human translator who has been translating claims in Japanese patents for the last 24 years, for example by this mad patent translator or another highly experienced patent translator. I also told him that a good patent translation is as close as you can get to what the Japanese document says without actually having to learn Japanese. He then asked for my rates, we thanked each other, and that was that.

I think that “servile imitation” would be a good way to describe what a good patent translation is supposed to be. In some fields of translation, the translators are allowed much more freedom and in some respects they need to be much more creative than in my field of patent translation. If you want to translate for example Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra into another language, you really have to create a different language similar to Nietzsche’s quasi biblical and quasi archaic version of German that he used in that book in another language. You sort of need to recreate Nietzsche’s madness in another language in your own mind.

You don’t have to do that in a patent translation. Patents have a logical structure and a fairly simple language that is easy to follow if you know and understand the technical terms used in them.

But that is not to say that you don’t need to be creative with this kind of “servile imitation”, which is the term that I am using here to describe translation of patents.

With long and rambling sentences in German or Japanese, you really have to be creative to figure out which adjective belongs to which noun, where are the verbs and which verb belongs to what. With Japanese, you often have no subject, and other indications of parts of speech and categories that are essentially always present in European languages, such as singular or plural or the tense, are usually also missing in the claims of Japanese patents.

Just like a translator of a novel, you really have to get into the mind of the person who wrote the text that you are translating. If the Japanese patent agent uses a strange combination of characters, you have to make a decision: is this a mistake or is this unusual character used in this word on purpose? Some claims are written in such a broad, roundabout way that trying to translate them faithfully without creating a completely ridiculous sentence in English is almost an impossibility. Finding the right compromise in such a case is not easy and a lot of creativity is again needed.

In traditional Japanese culture, a certain kind of imitation is considered to be the highest form of creativity. A student of martial arts, for instance, is supposed to imitate exactly what the master is doing, while being slapped and kicked around and fed a steady diet of nonsensical koans (公案), until the student becomes as good as the master so that he could then surpass the master.

Some claims in patents are not that different from koans of ancient Japan. They sort of make sense only on a certain level. They are repeated so many times in the text of a patent application, at least in the “Prior Art”, in the “Means to Solve Problems” and in the “Effect of the Invention” that the whole thing sounds just like a Buddhist prayer.

The servile imitation that is a must in translation of patents can be very creative indeed, although admittedly, a very special kind of creativity that needs to be also combined with servility is involved when it comes to patents.

For a really creative and productive servile imitation in your patent translation, you first have to find the answer to the ageless question: “Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.”

You don’t have to do that to translate a dumb novel.



  1. […] Originally posted here: Servile Imitation May Be The Best Translation Depending on Your … […]


  2. Just for your information, there is not 式写し but 敷写し. You may realize that the former means nothing in its combination of letters.


  3. Thank you.

    Typo fixed.


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