Posted by: patenttranslator | October 10, 2011

You Cannot Translate from a Language That You Don’t Understand No Matter How Brilliant You Are in Your Field

It is received and accepted wisdom that a technical translator must have a technical background. The assumption, in particular in the United States, is that a medical translator should be ideally a doctor, or at least a nurse, translators translating patents dealing with mechanical engineering concepts should have an engineering background, etc., despite the fact that bilingual nurses and medical doctors are often horrible translators if they have no linguistic education and training (they translate because they think that anybody who is “bilingual” can translate), see for instance this link on my blog to an article that was published in the ATA Chronicle (monthly journal of the American Translators Association). As I read recently on a blog discussing the qualifications desirable in a technical translator “no matter how fluent you are, you can’t translate something you don’t understand”.

I absolutely agree with this statement. This is in fact the reason why machine translation will never work the way non-translators (“civilians”) think it will one day soon.  Language, and written language in  particular, is a very complex and uniquely human activity, which can be only very crudely simulated by machines because machines will always lack human understanding.

This habitual contempt for people who majored in a foreign language, which is so clearly expressed in the assumption that somebody who has a PhD in Chinese studies, for example, cannot understand chemical patents, or patents dealing with physics or mechanical engineering, is simply silly.

Why is it that, especially in the United States, quite intelligent people simply assume that translators with an educational background in languages and humanities, for example, will never be able to understand chemical patents and thus will never be qualified to translate such texts, while the same seemingly intelligent people also blithely assume that an engineer or nurse who somehow “is fluent” in another language can be a translator, although this person has no linguistic background in the foreign language whatsoever? How did this engineer become fluent in another language without majoring in a foreign language at a university and living in China or Japan for many years? The assumption seems to be that people can simply “pick up a language” (I love this English idiom), the way one would pick up unwanted garbage on the street.

How many native English speakers are really fluent in languages such as Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, or even German? Not too many. In fact, most technical translators who translate patents and technical articles from Oriental languages are native Korean, Chinese, or Japanese speakers, and quite a few of them write English that sounds quite strange. And incidentally, I also know many native German speakers who translate patents into English and who speak and write better English than many if not most educated native English speakers because they are linguists first.

Technical translation is in my opinion a good option for people who want to become freelance translators whose first language is English, especially if they majored in languages such as German, Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, because thousands of patents and technical articles must be somehow translated from these languages into English every year.

Twenty or thirty years ago, it was probably true that unless your educational background was in physics or chemistry, you would not be able to translate competently arcane patents dealing with physics or chemistry, because even if you paid good attention in your high school chemistry or sciences classes, the chances were that complicated technical terminology would render your translation unusable, namely if you did not understand at least the gist of the technical concepts.  You really had to be expert in the field first to be a competent technical translator – 20 or 30 years ago.

But that was before the Internet. If you don’t understand something in the second decade of the third millennium, you can now Google it in Japanese, German or French and then read a short explanation in that language, for example on Wikipedia, which will often also include terms in English. And if you keep looking up things on the Internet like this, you will have an educational background in sciences after a few years, and after a few decades you may even become a multilingual expert in a technical field, once you have translated a few million words on subjects in a given field, who can for example provided testimony relating to terminology in different languages in court.

On the other hand, if you have a master’s degree or PhD in physics, even if you really know your stuff so well that you are a regular Einstein in your field, you first have to be really fluent in a language such as Japanese or Chinese if you want to be able to translate even a very simply Japanese or Chinese patent to English. If you have to look up simple Japanese characters while translating, or if you don’t understand Japanese grammar, which is very different from English grammar and can be quite maddening, it is kind of too late to try to find the solution to your problem on the Internet while you are translating because the translation would simply take too long, and you would probably not be able to find a solution anyway in this manner.

The situation may be somewhat easier in languages that are quite similar to English such as French or Spanish. I can imagine an engineer with a flair for languages who does not really know French all that well translating a French patent into English, although the chances are that such a translation would likely be full of “faux amis” (false friends, French words that look like words in English but mean something different). But it would probably be still usable.

But if you want to become a technical translator of Chinese or Japanese patents into English as a native English speaker, my advice would be to get a degree in Chinese or Japanese studies first with emphasis on the language.

Because no matter how brilliant you may be in your field, you cannot translate from a language that you don’t understand.


  1. More correctly, “If I were not….” (the vanishing but still in use English subjunctive).


    • If it is almost gone, is really more correct?

      Or is something like saying “It is I”, which is supposedly also more correct?


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