Posted by: patenttranslator | May 13, 2011

Do You Want Some Wasabi and Soy Sauce or Mustard and Ketchup with Your Patent Translation?

Patent translation is a special kind of translation. To translate a patent application, which is a relatively short and relatively simple document, from one language into another might seem like a fairly straightforward proposition. And sometime it is. But often it is anything but that, especially when the original document is in a language that is very different from the target language, which in my case would be English.

There are many pitfalls that a translator of patent applications written in languages such as Japanese, Chinese or Korean must be able to avoid. I will be writing mostly about Japanese, but I am sure that the experience of translators of other “exotic” languages is similar to mine.

For example, unless Japanese personal and place names are transcribed on the title page so that their pronunciation is also indicated, I cannot be really sure how to pronounce them. Fortunately, the names of inventors are always transcribed in romaji (Roman alphabet) in published English summaries of Japanese patent applications, but the place names are not, and neither are the names of patent agents. The pronunciation of a place name in an address in Hokkaido, for instance, may be very hard to ascertain, in particular because the place name may be based on Ainu languages (Ainus, also known as the Bear People, where the original inhabitants of Hokkaido).

Because Japanese parents like to use unusual characters as well as unusual pronunciations of well know characters to name their children, the pronunciation of the first name of the patent agent who prepared the patent application is often a mystery to me. For example, P.G. O’Neill’s “Dictionary of Japanese Names by Characters and Readings” lists on page 191 about 336 different characters for the name Akira, which is a common Japanese first name. Every one of these characters can be also pronounced differently than Akira, for instance Teru, Mitsu, Makoto, Mikoto, Nobu, Toshi, Mori, etc., depending basically on what the parents of this patent agent decided to call their bundle of joy a few decades ago when they were choosing from almost limitless possible combinations of Japanese characters and readings. As far as I can tell, it is a badge of honor to have a name that nobody can figure out from the characters if you are Japanese, which is why I often give up and just name people Akira to be done with it.

After the identification of names, which may take quite a while and which may involve some guesswork, come the claims. Japanese patent applications start with the claims section, while the claims are at the end of patent applications in European languages such as German and French. Unless the claims are very short and simple, I translate them at the end because they often become clearly comprehensible to me only after I have translated the entire document. One problem here is that at first, I don’t have technical terms established in English.

But another problem is that some grammatical categories that exist in European languages such as English simply don’t exist in Asian languages such as Japanese or Chinese. Some things that are essentially always clear in an English sentence, such as whether a noun is in singular or plural, or whether a verb is in the present or future tense, are quite fluid for example in Japanese. The entire approach of the grammar in languages as disparate as English and Japanese is as different as the condiments used in Japanese and American cuisine, for instance, hence the title of my article. You can spell Casey as Cacey and your name may be Robert and you may prefer to be called Bob if you wish in English, but as far as I know, there is no English name with 336 possible spelling and pronunciation combinations (think of Akira who could be “spelled” with 336 characters and who could also be Toshi or Nobu or Mitsu and many other things).

Another “wasabi” characteristic of written Japanese that is very different from written English is that there are no spaces between words in Japanese (therearenospacesbetweenwordsinJapanese). It is not as bad as it looks because the Japanese language uses an alphabet (or syllabary) called hiragana for grammatical functions, while characters which are of Chinese origin are mostly used for nouns and roots of words and other meaningful components, and another alphabet (or syllabary) called katakana is used for loan words, foreign words, onomatopoeic expressions (the Japanese language uses them all the time, for instance when birds flap their wings, it is called pata-pata in Japanese, and when a dog wags his tail, it is also called pata-pata in Japanese), or simply for emphasis.

But still, a really creative patent agent, let’s call him Akira, can just string many characters in claims to create fuzzy concepts with words that may or may not really exist in Japanese and that I need to decipher first in order to break a string of Japanese characters, let’s say 7 or 8, into 2 or 3 or 4 or more English words that actually mean something in English. German compound words can be also used in claims of German patents in this manner, but Gott sei Dank (thanks God), since one word takes up much more space than one character (one character basically takes the space of one letter), the compound nouns are not as long in German as they can be in Japanese.

People who don’t know much about translation, such as many if not most translation agency owners for instance, think that a translation of a Japanese patent that reads really well in English, almost as if it were originally written in English, must be a very good translation. But the fact is that it may be a very good translation or a really bad translation.

If an English translation of a Japanese patent is written in a style that is natural to English, it may also mean that so much of Japanese wasabi was replaced by English mustard and ketchup that the original flavor of the meal (the original meaning of the text) has disappeared.

A patent translation is like a fusion of two different cuisines. It can be done, and it can be done well. You can have an interesting blend of Japanese and Italian cuisine, for example. I knew a restaurant like that in San Francisco once, it was called Oritalia. It was quite popular for a while.

But depending on the writer of the Japanese document, creating the right kind of fusion in a patent translation from Japanese to English may be in some cases even more complicated than trying to combine wasabi and soy sauce with mustard and ketchup to create a new kind of meal.

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