Posted by: patenttranslator | May 5, 2011

How Specialized Can One Be As a Freelance Translator in the 21st Century?

All translators specialize to some extent. But few of us can afford to specialize in a narrow field.

There are certain translation fields that I have been trying to avoid, with moderate success, for the last 24 years. For instance, I don’t “do financial translation”. I have a big Japanese-English Advanced Business Dictionary, published by the PMC Company in 1987, over 2100 pages of financial terms, and every time when I have to translate a financial report of some Japanese company (that much I can do), I keep looking up the same terms over and over again. I remember that I looked them up last time when I was translating something similar, but I then I forget again what they meant. I think that I don’t care enough to try really, really hard to remember these stupid words in both languages. I simply don’t care enough about words in the financial lingo, I am perfectly happy if I understand the basic terms and the main concepts.

But I do care about technical terms, partly because they are my bread and butter, and partly because I find the terms and the concepts really interesting. For some reason, I don’t need to know what the term “residual import restriction formula” means as long as I can remember the Japanese characters until I finish the translation. But if I forget a Japanese chemical term, let’s say “glycerol monochlorohydrine”, which I did know just the other day, damn it, I feel like a failure!

There are two schools of thought on the subject of technical translation in general and patent translation in particular. Some people say that technical translators should start from specialized technical education and that they should translate only texts in their particular field of specialization. I know translators who more or less do that. For example, I know a German technical translator who has a Ph. D. in chemistry and who translates mostly chemical patents from German to English. But even such a broad field (chemistry) is evidently not broad enough for her because she sends Japanese patents and German articles in her field and other fields for translation to me, and she happens to know that I don’t exactly have a Ph. D. in chemistry. In fact, I can think of at least three people with Ph. D. in chemistry who have been sending me chemical patents for years, although they know that I am just a dilettante in this field. I know another German translator who is a certified public account (CPA) and who specializes in  German patents about mechanical engineering. I know these translators, of course, because they work for patent law firms and send me requests for translations from Japanese that they receive from these law firms.

According to the other school of thought, since you can’t really specialize in a narrow field because you would not be able to pay the bills (there simply is not enough work in any single field for a freelance translator), it is more important to start from a thorough knowledge of languages obtained through linguistic education because you can learn about all kinds of technical subjects on the job, so to speak, once you have been working long enough as a technical translator.

I think that this reasoning makes a lot of sense in the age of Internet. When I could not find a difficult technical term 20 or even 10 years ago, I was in big trouble if the term was not in any of my numerous dictionaries. If I come across a complicated technical term today, even one that is misspelled, I can usually find the answer by Googling the word in Japanese, German or French, or by searching databases of patents in foreign languages on the Internet. Sometime I have to waste a lot of time doing that, but I almost always find an answer to my questions. Twenty years ago, I would have to call somebody who had a deep knowledge of the subject, if I knew somebody like that. Most of the time there was nobody to call because this person with a deep knowledge of the subject would also need to be bilingual.

On the other hand, unless you know enough Japanese or Chinese characters (about three thousand, the more the better), and unless you know the language very well, how can you translate a Japanese or Chinese patent to English even if you have a Ph. D. in marine biology, or chemistry or mechanical engineering? It simply can’t be done and Internet will really not help you very much.

Although I call myself a patent translator, my website is at, and the tagline of my blog is Diary of a Mad Patent Translator, or maybe because of that, I realize that there is no such thing as an “ideal patent translator” because nobody can possibly have enough knowledge in all the fields in which thousands of patents are filed in so many languages every day. An ideal patent translator should have a Ph. D. in the relevant field (mechanical engineering, marine biology, electrical engineering, chemistry, etc.), as well as a law degree with specialization in intellectual property law. He should also be perfectly fluent in at least two languages (more like seven languages in my case), and English should be his native language.

This ideal translator of course does not exist because it is not humanly possible to have such a broad knowledge. There were people like that who knew just about everything about everything on this planet once, they were called pansophists (my spell checker does not know this word) and they lived in the Middle Ages. Up until about five hundred years ago, you could learn basically everything there was to learn about everything, as well as the most important languages, including Latin and Greek, if you had access to books and a yearning to know as much as possible about all human sciences before you die. But as the base of human knowledge kept growing and growing, the last pansophist died about five hundred years ago.

Which is not to say that the other approach to technical translation is wrong at the beginning of the twenty first century. You can start with technical education, move for ten years or so to China or Japan or Germany and become a superb patent translator without any linguistic education at all. I know a few people like that too.

But if you want to be a competent translator, you really have to know your languages. I think that this is the most important requirement, and translators who start from a linguistic education have a major advantage.


  1. What you are saying is absolutely true. When it comes to technical translations, I believe that either way (whether you come from a technical background or from a linguistic pathway) you would always need to learn something more about a specific subject.

    From my personal experience, I believe though that it is of paramount importance to have a strong translation background before having technical knowledge on a specific subject. What happens most of the times, is that those who come from a technical background do not always succeed in rendering comprehensible texts which are not addressed to a specialised audience in the best way.


  2. Thank you.

    Unfortunately, many translation agencies don’t understand this simple truth, which is why they often deliver such poor quality.


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