Posted by: patenttranslator | April 3, 2011

The Creativity of Concert Pianists and Patent Translators


How creative is a concert pianist? Just like a translator, she does not create anything new. She just translates notes that were written by somebody else and that she sees on a sheet of paper into music, the way a translator translates words from one language into another.

Unlike concert pianists, most people do not read notes, all they see are meaningless symbols. Branka Parlic sees symbols and hears the music in her head. But still, she does not really create anything new, does she? Oh, wait, she does. Leopold Stokowski, Svjatoslav Richter, or Mstislav Rostropovich would not play this piece by Philip Glass the way Branka Parlic is playing it. Every pianist, or every good pianist, creates new meaning for the notes on a sheet of paper every time he or she touches the keyboard. The meaning of the notes cannot be programmed into a digitized language, only the result of the playing can be recorded and then reproduced a million times. Why can’t we create a software program that would play music as well or better than humans? Or can we? (No, we can’t because we are not God seems like a good answer).

Creativity, or creating meaning where there was none, is a part of translation that is not understood by non-translators. Before a long patent claim is translated into English, only relatively few people, something like a mere hundred million, could read and understand a long sentence in a tricky Japanese claim. After I am done with it, at least a billion people will be able to read it, and some might even understand it.

In fact, I do feel like a concert pianist when I translate, especially when I translate long and complicated Japanese claims. Although unlike European and American patents, Japanese patents start with claims, I usually translate the claims at the end because at the beginning I am still trying to establish the correct terminology, the correct meaning of the notes, you could say. I touch the keyboard lovingly and longingly, just like a concert pianist. But unlike a pianist, I can go back and change the meaning of the words, and then often change it back to what it was originally.

I have my own playing technique too: I use a yellow highlighter to highlight と, (to, which means “and”, with a comma after that), then start from the end of the claim, jump to the beginning, divide the sentence into と(to) sections, and look for を(wo, which designates an object in Japanese). Perhaps other translators have other techniques, but vain as I am, I do believe that my technique is the best one, at least for me. I know that if I don’t highlight the to sections, I might forget one of them if there are 8 or 12 of them in one claim and the sentences are repetitive, which they always are.

I usually listen to music when I translate claims, this piano piece (Metamorphosis 2 by Philip Glass) would be very suitable for translating patent claims. Hip hop music would not be suitable for my purposes. You can’t really be hopping in your chair when you are reading Japanese characters and typing at the same time. I don’t think I will even try doing that. But opera works for me too, unless it has a heavy beat to it. New Age music is perfect for patent claims.

I like to translate patent claims early in the morning, just after I’ve had my first cup of coffee for the day and after I have quickly checked the news on the Internet to make sure that the world is still there. The meaning of the Japanese claims that I see in English in my mind, combined with the music that I hear with my ears, create a parallel kind of universe that is there just for me, early in the morning before everybody else wakes up, as I listen to my own music of the spheres, which may or may not be heard by other people when I am liberating the meaning of words that up until this point were hidden in a long string of Japanese characters or long German compound nouns.

One reason why I don’t use computer memory tools such as Trados is that I value my own creativity, the act in which I give meaning to Japanese characters that are meaningless to most people, but very meaningful to me. The artist and craftsman in me finds the whole concept somewhat barbaric. I don’t think that cutting and pasting sections of text from my old translations and jumping between two software programs on the screen would give me the kind of supernatural high that I experience early in the morning when I create something new in my own version of the universe, after I’ve had my first cup of coffee, just before I hear the thud of the newspaper hitting my porch as the night starts receding back to where it came from and a new day is dawning again.


  1. Nice idea as always, Steve. I picture you sitting at your piano (pardon–PC), hair all tussled like Liszt Ferenc or Fred Chopin, hammering away at your sonata errr… patent translation.

    And I didn’t know that Mstislav Rostropovich also played the piano, knew him only as a violoncellist and conductor. Had to look that one up of course, and learned that he had also studied piano. Did he ever perform as a concert pianist, though? I don’t seem to remember–but that doesn’t mean a thing.

    There is just one thing that won’t go into my head, Steve: you are adamant about your refusal to use a CAT tool, because, inter alia “…I value my own creativity…” That gets me wondering why or how a CAT tool would impede your creativity. I suspect though, that the only CAT tool you ever really looked at was Trados. And Trados, IMHO, is the deed of a bunch of demented Teutons who were hell-bent on making life as confusing, miserable, and exasperating as they could for all translators worldwide. Trados is mental cruelty. Trados is psycho-terror! Trados is worse than the wrath of a Greek god!

    I have for the past ten years been using a different CAT tool (SDLX), and one day decided that I should sit in on a Trados presentation since, after all, Trados was, and apparently still is, the market leader.

    After half an hour I fled the crime scene. I realized that the poor people who were using Trados needed that long to set up their files, while in SDLX it takes one click of the right-hand mouse button to get me started. To say nothing of the rest of the stuff. Trados is hopelessly overloaded, and that is putting it kindly.

    Forget Trados! Be as innovative as Mr Tesla or Mr Bata (if you still remember these two eminent compatriots of yours) and take a fresh and unbiased look at the likes of MemoQ or Déjà vu (MemoQ is my secret favourite). A good CAT tool won’t impede your creativity; it will, on the contrary, improve it. A CAT tool does away with routine chores that hold you up – and it will NEVER again let you forget a *to* or *wo* section. Never!! And, by the time you get to the claims, your trusted CAT tool will show you what you wrote in the description…and you don’t jump between two programs…and you don’t cut and paste anything–don’t forget, you ought to be dictating your translations by now; typing was yesterday. And it will show you how you translated a certain term or part of a sentence further up. And it will check to make sure you didn’t mess up any figures. And, at the outset, in the early hours of the morning, when your mind is fresh and you are doing your finger exercises to warm up, you will look at two columns, one of them with the Japanese or German original, the other one completely blank like a white sheet of paper for you to lift a finger, lower it unto the keyboard and hit the first note – sorry, letter – like in the olden times Svjatoslav Richter at the first note of the Pathétique, and the world trembled.

    And now having said all that, you are probably wondering why I prefer MemoQ and don’t stick to SDLX. Good point! But the explanation is simple. The makers of SDLX were extremely successful–so successful in fact, that they bought out the market leader (and some other CAT tool producers). To all the fans of SDLX they solemnly vowed they would keep SDLX alive, which they have to a certain degree, in that they ran SDLX and Trados into one huge software program called Trados Studio. They kept their promise, alright, but many a secret tear has been and still will be shed at the demise of SDLX as a stand-alone software. Una furtiva lagrima…


  2. Hi Volkmar:

    Good to hear from you again.

    Your enthusiasm for SDLX and MemoQ is noted and I will take a close look at them AS SOON AS THEY START CONVERTING JAPANESE PDF FILES with one click of the mouse. 99.9% of the patents I translate are in PDF format. I tried to convert them using my scanner but it took forever and the results were not very good.

    So you see, you could say that I am making a virtue out of necessity and you would not be wrong.

    Oh, I was really thinking of Leopold Stokowski and Svjatoslav Richter, I have to fix my blog.

    I know about Bata, of course. I read about his daughters (or grand daughters?) every time when they visit Prague. They seem to be 100% Brazilian now, just like my children are 100% American.

    But Tesla was not Czech. He was Croatian.


  3. Darn it, Steve, I thought Tesla was Czech. OK, replace that with Skoda!

    As for PDFs–few CAT tools can handle them; I doubt that any CAT tool does a good job on them. Since most of the legal stuff (also most patents) I get comes in PDF format, I bought a PDF converter named ABBYY Fine Reader. It usually does a very good job converting PDFs to .doc (or .txt). It also supports Japanese, so your problem should be solved there, and no more odd OCR via your scanner.

    I usually charge clients extra for PDF files, as I have to convert them and maybe do a bit of polishing on them. 95 percent of them (the customers) don’t mind the charge.

    As for SDLX, no need to look at it as officially it no longer exists and you can’t buy a licence. It has been fused with Trados into Trados Studio. MemoQ appears to be the most “intuitive” of the lot, although in the beginning, it may appear a bit daunting but one gets the hang of it quickly. And their support is excellent. It also supports Dragon Naturally Speaking. Many people rave about Déjà vu by Atril; I almost bought it but then SDLX came along, and their licence was only $75.00 so I grabbed that one. It was the best investment in my whole life (save for my wife’s wedding ring but that didn’t come that cheap).

    And for the record, before SDL get on my back and take me to court for denigrating Trados–I was talking about the “classical” version of Trados, not about Trados Studio, of which I took out a licence myself. Even so, it would be marvelous if SDL were to un-clutter and unburden Trados Studio a bit.

    The Glass piece was wonderful, by the way. I enjoyed it a lot.


    • Hi Volkmar:

      I looked at ABBY Fine Reader online and they have several versions for sale, from 99.99 to 599.99 dollars for full version.

      Which version should I buy?

      Can I use it also to estimate word count for instance in German PDF documents by converting a PDF file to MS Word file and multiplying the German word count by 1.3 to arrive at the English word count? And can I install it on several computers (in need to have it on 4 computers if possible)?




  4. Tesla was not Czech, but he was crazy enough for a Czech. Hence your misidentification of his nationality.

    Somebody else also mentioned ABBY, so I will take a look at it. But I think I will wait before I do anything rash like spending money until a law firm asks me whether I use one of these things. Old habits die hard, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, etc.

    It’s interesting that you can charge more for PDF files. Are these agencies or direct clients or both?

    I do believe that we should communicate more about things like how can one charge more for stuff and get away with it.

    The Glass piece was really good. The man is quite a genius.

    If you go to Youtube where this piano piece is, one guy discussing this music says that he can tell that the pianist is “a real sex animal” and other people reproach him for saying that or agree with him. It’s really funny.

    The chances are that this particular commenter sees a real sex animal in everything that wears a skirt because he is either a frustrated teenager, or because he’s been “happily married” for a couple of decades.

    It’s one or the other, I can tell. As Karel Gott says in his song from 1966: C’est la vie.


  5. I didn’t absorb anything after this at the end of your second paragraph:
    “The meaning of the notes cannot be programmed into a digitized language, only the result of the playing can be recorded and then reproduced a million times. Why can’t we create a software program that would play music as well or better than humans? Or can we? (No, we can’t because we are not God seems like a good answer).”

    Actually, yes we can — and did — over 150 years ago:
    OK, “as well as or better than” would be in the ear of the beholder. But these days, a player piano would make up for its lack of expression with its old-fashioned charm. (Maybe one day we will say the same about machine translation!)

    Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I will go back and read the post again.



  6. And mechanized pianos certainly took off in a big way, didn’t they?

    After modest beginnings in honky tonk saloons and bordellos, they became magnets drawing huge crowds to sold out concert halls where their interpretation of Beethoven’s piano works stunned the concertgoers.

    In particular, the software-driven mechanized interpretation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is unsurpassed to this day as many concert pianists have been trying in vain to imitate the masterful mechanized rendition of musical notes that is imbued with so much feeling and understanding of the meaning behind the notes.

    See for example here:


  7. Whoa, Steve! Before I answer your questions, I have a bone to pick. You will remember the discussion on your very own blog about the creativity of computers. In that discussion you pointed out, and quite rightly so, that computers aren’t creative.

    But what do we read now: “In particular, the software-driven mechanized interpretation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is unsurpassed to this day as many concert pianists have been trying in vain to imitate the masterful mechanized rendition of musical notes that is imbued with so much feeling and understanding of the meaning behind the notes…”

    How much feeling and understanding can a mechanism have? Does it know what moonlight means, or does it feel the moonlight reflecting in a lake? Does it know, that the Moonlight Sonata has nothing whatsoever to do with moonlight and that Beethoven never used the name?

    Surely you are leading us on! If you aren’t, check out on YouTube what András Schiff has to say about the Moonlight Sonata. It’s an eye-opener. (Schiff is one of my favourite cencert pianists, his Bach and Bártok are unsurpassed.)

    Now to ABBYY–I have an older version (7.0) that cost me something like EUR 120.00. Since these things are usually cheaper in the US, your $100 version might just be it. I can’t check out the version at the moment as I am working on a notebook with Windows 7 and my old version doesn’t take kindly to it.

    You can do your word count with ABBYY in MS Word; that’s what I use it for when a client wants a quick quote. And (but please don’t tell anyone) I installed it on 3 machines (one PC, one older Notebook and one PC for stand-by, just in case). I plan to buy the upgrade within the next couple of weeks so I can run it under WIN7.

    Your factor of 1.3 seems to be about right; I normally quote per source word hence don’t do any figuring, just counting. Occasionally, I will do an estimate for clients who insist on a target wordcount quote. I normally use a factor of 0,0 English>German.


  8. I meant a factor of 0.8, of course. Sorry!


  9. I was kidding of course about mechanized pianos. Were you kidding about not understanding that I was being sarcastic? I am sure Paula got it. The Animamusic production in my response to her comment is fake of course too, the music is played by humans and software pretends that it is played by machines. But it looks amazingly realistic.

    I think that mechanized pianos were probably used in honky tonk saloons, at least I saw some black and white movies about the Wild West that had such contraptions in them, but to my knowledge, no mechanized piano ever gave a concert in a concert hall, and there has never been a machine translation of a patent that actually made sense either.

    Thanks for the information about Abby Fine Reader. I found something online that said Abby Fine Reader, free version, but when I downloaded it, it was just a gimmick to make me install something else. I will try to buy the software in local stores or from a reputable source.

    I keep getting patents in German and I need to quote based on the word count, so if I can use Abby for that, it will be money well spent.


  10. Hi, Steve,
    Sarcasm, you?
    But it’s an interesting (unintentional) analogy. Machine translation might satisfy people who don’t know any better or who have no access to the real thing, just as player pianos brought music to people who did not have musical talent or the means to hire performers for their events.
    It was machine-made music or nothing. Just fill in the blanks.

    Check out this site:
    Not just for saloons, but, “Word rolls made it simple to use the player to accompany singing in the home, a very popular activity in the years before radio and acceptable disc recordings became available.”
    MP3 files and a demo video here!
    I really had no idea.


  11. The analogy between mechanical pianos and machine translation was intentional on my part. I think that the similarities are striking, except for the fact that MT is here to stay and mechanical pianos are mostly only in museums.

    I could write another post about these similarities and differences but my son told me that I keep writing about machine translation and he finds it boring.

    He is probably right.

    I will try to think of some other topic.


  12. It is a good analogy — especially considering that humans create the MT databases and also created the piano rolls to begin with. But I’m off on a different track now — I think that piano rolls, and interpretation of such by … (what were they called, these people who played player pianos?) player piano players were the precursers to video games. The script is given, but it’s up the the player to manipulate tempo, volume, dynamics…

    But back to translation. There’s an online OCR application, first 20 pages per calendar month free: It does not support Japanese, but German is supported. I’ve done some tests and this is the best online application I’ve found. I think it’s better than Adobe’s PDF conversion and OCR function.

    Nevermind your son. For a translation blogger, machine translation is the gift that keeps on giving.


  13. As an amateur classical pianist and J-E (patent 等) translator, I particularly enjoyed finding your blog today. It never occurred to me the parallels of creating music, reading music and translating one’s interpretation, to language translation, particularly the field of patents, which is the ultimate “urtext” of translation source material, wit サラリマン emails being a close second.
    Thank you for your posting. I don’t feel so alien in my life’s interests and professional pursuits! There are kindred spirits after all…!


  14. @Alixe

    I am honored to be a kindred spirit, even thought we live on different continent.

    I went to your website – very nice design.

    Which is better these days, the English teaching business or patent translation?

    I noticed that there has been much less activity as far as translation of Japanese patents is concerned on this side of the pond.


  15. […] different kind of creativity is required also depending on what language one translates. I sometime have to be highly creative when I translate a Japanese patents because …. they are full of typos and other minor and sometime not so minor […]


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