Posted by: patenttranslator | May 20, 2011

What Is the Best Choice for a Supplier of Patent Translations from Foreign Languages?

There are basically three major choices for a patent law firm, an inventor or investor or anybody else who needs to have a patent translated from a foreign language to English – machine translation, a translation agency or an individual translator.

Machine Translation Is an Obvious Choice

Machine translation (MT) is an obvious choice when it is not clear whether a full translation is in fact warranted. I try to refer to machine translation as “machine translation product” because what you get for you money (actually, mostly for no money at all or for very little money) is not a real translation, only a product of fairly ingenious software. But even the best MT software does not provide a translation that is based on an understanding of technical concepts and lifelong study of foreign languages, something like this can be obtained only from human translators and based on the development of machine translation in the last 50 years or so, I don’t see any major changes in this respect on the horizon, let’s say during this century.

The best thing about machine translation is that it contains enough useful information to prevent some humans from ordering expensive patent translations from other humans … namely patent translation that were not really needed (but how could one tell whether something was needed or not before machine translation)?

A Translation Agency May Be a Good Choice

Once it is clear that a real translation is needed, should one order it from a translation agency or try to find an individual translator? If you are really, really in a hurry and money is no object to you or your customer, a translation agency could be a good choice. But only if it is an agency that has been specializing in the IP field for many years, preferably quite a few decades. There are a few translation agencies out there who know what they are doing. I used to work for agencies specializing in patents when I was starting out as a brand new patent translator in the late eighties (of the last century, I am pretty ancient at this point), and I learned a lot from some of them. Alas, I don’t work for any of those agencies of the days of yore any more, although some of them are still in business, because I can get a much better rate from direct clients.

You can usually tell whether they know the IP field by the fact that all they do is translation of patents and documents related to patents. As a customer, I would stay away from generic agencies that translate “every language and every subject”, including patents. An agency that specializes in patent translations, financial translations, and advertising translations as well obviously does not specialize in anything and people who work in these agencies really have no idea whether the patent translation that they just delivered to their customer was good, mediocre or really bad for the simple reason that they don’t know the source language, especially if it is a language such as Japanese or Chinese, and they have no technical knowledge related to the field either.

An Individual Patent Translator May Be A Good Choice Too

Obviously, I am going to say that going with an individual patent translator is the best choice because I am a patent translator myself. But I believe that it may be in fact the best choice for many purposes and on many levels. First of all, most of what one reads on the websites of translation agencies is pretty transparent advertising that is not based on facts. Translation agencies don’t have two or three or four highly experienced patent translators who go with a fine tooth comb over every patent translation until the translation is absolutely perfect. In spite of what they say on their websites, there would simply be no profit left for them if they used such a method because highly experienced patent translators are expensive, and it would not work anyway because two or three or four highly experienced translators would simply not be able to agree on anything and they would probably ended up killing each other. I have more about this mythical “multi-level translation quality process” for instance in my posts here and here.

Translation agencies don’t have access to an unlimited number of highly qualified patent translators because the number of highly qualified patent translators is very limited, in particular from complicated languages such as Japanese or Chinese. The ratio of highly experienced patent translators from such languages to translation agencies willing and eager to translate patents from those languages for paying customers is about 1 : 1,000. Or it may be higher than that. Most of the time, especially when a customer sends a patent for translation to a large translation agency, the translation will be handled by coordinators, (I call them clueless kids), who do not know the language in which the patent is written (for instance Japanese, German or French). I know this because I used to work for these agencies until about 10 years ago. About 10 years ago I decided that I don’t need to work for clueless kids who work for these large agencies and although I still work for some translation agencies, I only work for the small ones which I would call “translation agencies with a human face”.

What Are the Advantages of Working with an Individual Translator?

So what are the advantages of working with an individual translator again? I think that a big advantage is that once you find a good translator, he or she will learn everything there is to know about a particular field. If a company continues to send translations in a certain field to a certain translator, this translator will eventually become an expert on technical terms in this field in two or more languages. Since I have been working for law firms and IP departments of several major corporations in several technical fields since the early nineties, I am quite familiar with terminology in several languages and concepts in these fields now. Some of these firms and corporations still send me work, some have found other sources, probably cheaper than this patent translator. Especially big corporations always look for cheaper labor, which includes patent translators. Just like I prefer to work for small translation agencies (translation agencies with a human face), I also prefer to work for small companies and smaller law firms because they usually stay with me for many years.

It should be also said that there is no clear dividing line between a small translation agency and an individual translator. Right in this moment, for instance, three translators are working on patent translations for my clients through me, and before the months is over, I may be able to help more translators to pay their bills. And most months I myself am also working for other translators, usually for German patent translators because they are sometime asked by their clients to handle a translation of a patent from Japanese.

And a smart German patent translator is not going to say to a patent law firm, I am sorry, I only handle German patents.

She will send the Japanese patent to somebody like me, which means that in that moment, she will become a translation agency. But unlike a clueless kid in a huge translation agency, this translation coordinator is much more likely to be a good judge of translation quality if she herself is an experienced patent translator.


  1. hi
    this blog is too good and have good quality
    and ossam


  2. I totally agree with what you said. Finally I found someone who can understand my life so much better. I myself have worked as a patent translator for more than 10 years, and I am still learning about patent translation agencies’ tricks (in sad ways).


  3. “a big advantage is that once you find a good translator, he or she will learn everything there is to know about a particular field. ”

    That’s me!
    As an engineer I translate technical documents from Japanese, Korean and Chinese into Italian. I’m about to take a course on patent translation to become the one among 1000s.


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