Posted by: patenttranslator | December 21, 2011

Spurious Claims about “Bilingual Experts” Revisited

I have written several posts in the year and half that I have been blogging here on the differences between a translation agency and freelance translators and on the many pleasures and tribulations of freelance translators. Everything I wrote was considered mostly from the perspective of the translator.

But I wonder, what does the translation business look like from the perspective of our clients? What are they thinking when they end up on the website of a translation agency or translator?

I don’t really know much about different translation fields because I have been translating in the last 25 years mostly patents, both for translation agencies and for patent law firms and IP law departments of different companies and corporations. So I think I do know a little bit about the subject of patent translation.

Some translation agencies specializing in patents claim that they don’t really use just “translators” to translate patents. Instead, they use “teams comprised of specialists (mechanical engineers, medical doctors, pharmacologists, lawyers, etc.,) to achieve accurate translations of highly technical documents”.

Is it really true? Do clients believe these claims? Some probably do, most hopefully don’t. Perhaps it is possible that an unemployed mechanical engineer might consider translating Japanese patents for a translation company for a while, but probably only after having been unemployed for a very long time. But how many mechanical engineers are really fluent in Japanese and English and are at the same time experienced patent translators?

If I were a medical doctor, pharmacologist, or lawyer, I would be working in my chosen field instead of translating Japanese patents for a living. Why would doctors, engineers and lawyers translate instead of working in their field? If they are any good, they can make more money by doing what they studied instead of translating. Translating is really a very interesting occupation. But it is usually interesting only to those who actually are translators, not just “bilingual specialists” who somehow miraculously became “fluent” in two or more languages and thus apparently qualify as translators even though they never had any education or training in linguistics.

How did these “bilingual experts” learn their languages? Excellent knowledge of the Japanese language, for example, is about as difficult to achieve as a medical degree, and it takes even longer, at least 10 years by my calculation. How did an English speaker manage to become a medical doctor and learn perfect Japanese or Chinese or German at the same time, including reading and writing? If he is a native Japanese or Chinese speaker, is his English at the level of a native speakers of English? I have met a few people like that, but not too many.

Some of these translation agencies also claim on their websites that they actually have teams of highly educated and experienced engineers, doctors and lawyers who go with a fine tooth comb several times over every translation until it is absolutely perfect. How much would such a translation have to cost if you really had to pay three or four real experts every time to work on one patent? Too much, obviously. This claim is clearly nonsense as well.

In any case, if the person who translated the patent was a good and experienced translator, there would be no need for a team of “experts” to fight over the terms used in the translation anyway, would there? And if these experts were opinionated as real experts are wont to be, wouldn’t they kill each other over a minor disagreement? I think so. If some “expert” tried to change anything in my translation other than fix a typo, I would quickly lose my cool and start using extremely abusive language toward such a person. This claim is nonsense too. The result of several layers of a good translation by two or three or four levels of “bilingual experts” would most likely be a mangled translation reflecting the personal preferences of these experts rather than the original meaning of the text in the foreign language.

The people who write the propaganda that one can see on the websites of some translation agencies clearly have a lot of contempt for translators. So they make up stories about nonexistent “bilingual experts”. To these marketing types, translators are nothing but easily replaceable hired help.

To me, good translators are almost irreplaceable because the really good ones are very hard to find.

It takes time before you become a good butcher, baker or candlestick maker. And it takes time before you become a good patent translator too. About twenty years.

Bilingual experts, on the other hand, can be created instantaneously because they exist mostly in the imagination of marketing types who write advertising propaganda for various websites.


  1. I agree one hundred percent. In my personal history of outsourcing I only came across a Russian engineer (brilliant as engineer and very inaccurate as translator) and a medical graduate with poor professional discipline and rather average translations which needed much rework. On the other hand, considering the perspective of the client, all this marketing bla bla about teams of bilingual experts might be a decisive argument due to misconceptions or ignorance about translation and translators. It is those misconceptions and misunderstandings which, ultimately, led the European regulators to produce the notorious European norm DIN EN 15938 on translation services stipulating a mandatory revision of the translation by a „reviser“ (who shall be „a person other than the translator and have the appropriate competence in the source and target language“, etc.). An individual translator may have the image of a lone fighter, somehow less trustworthy than an „agency“ which a corporate client would rather consider his „peer“… Well, you could try to educate the client (your blog does), though I am sceptical about the results, or make claims about „international teams of bilingual experts“. In the end of the day, it is another paraphrase on the subject of „honesty (still the best policy)” with one more question mark at the end.


  2. “It is those misconceptions and misunderstandings which, ultimately, led the European regulators to produce the notorious European norm DIN EN 15938 on translation services”

    Thank you for your comment.

    What is this DIN EN 15938 norm?

    I think we have something similar here in US but I am not sure what it is an how it works. In any case, nobody ever asked me about it yet and i have been translating patents for about 25 years now.

    To your concluding point, yes, I think that honesty is the best policy for freelance translators. After all, most of our clients are not dumb. Most of them can probably distinguish between propaganda and facts.

    At least I hope so.


  3. DIN EN 15038 (sorry for the wrong number) is the European standard adopted in 2006 “to establish and define the requirements for the provision of quality services by translation service providers”. The most controversial part is the requirement for double-checking, which de-facto abolishes an individual translator in favor of a “TCP” (translation service provider, newspeak for agency). The current results (e.g. survey by BDÜ, the German translators’ association) show that the overwhelming majority of both agencies and freelancers have ignored this regulation, i.e. failed to undergo (bureaucratic and very costly) certification or registration procedures. The standard is due for a revision, so some discussion will be held again, even if DIN EN 15038 remains (at least formally) unimplemented by most translators and virtually unknown by most corporate clients.

    Well, I also believe that honesty is the best policy and hope that our clients can distinguish between propaganda and facts. I was born in the then Soviet Union, so the word propaganda strikes a very resonant chord with me. Thanks for your posts and best regards from Germany!


  4. Double checking only works if the proofreader is at least as qualified as the translator.

    However, this is almost never the case in a typical large translation agency. Some small, specialized agencies may be able to do that, depending on the subject, if they are run by people who are also translators and understand the subject.

    I have been translating Japanese patents for 25 years now and I never had a checker at an agency ask me an intelligent question about my translation. My default name for a translation agency coordinator is “clueless kid”.

    Only a patent lawyer/agent or a translator working in the same field would be able to catch my mistake, which obviously has happened a few times during the last quarter century.


  5. Though I agree with you on this one for the most part, Steve, your assumption that an engineer, doctor, chemist or whatever would stick to their professional field and not venture competently into translation is a rather shaky one. I know a number of people who have done so and acquired their language skills in quite a number of interesting ways outside a traditional university course. Some get their start in exchange years, others travel where they get stuck somewhere on route and marry in a strange land, one I know picked tulips and worked in a factory before getting mixed up with the diplomatic world. There was even a time in the US when science and engineering majors were required to have competence – significant competence – in German, though those days are long past. Still, I was such a “bilingual expert”, translating chemical procedures relevant to my research for years, where the accuracy of my work might well determine how many fingers I had left to count with. (No kidding – my hobby as a kid was translating old reports on guess what from Liebigs Annalen der Chemie and other interesting sources.)

    One rather excellent translator I know quit a research job objecting to animal experimentation. Look around among our cross-pollinated colleagues in the profession and you’ll find thousands of stories, many having nothing to do with formal language or translation studies, which I seldom see as having imparted competence which was not in some great way present well before those studies if it is present at all.


  6. I agree that there are indeed at least two ways leading to the profession of a technical translator. You can start with a background in sciences and learn a foreign language or two later, or you can do it the other way around, which is what I did.

    There probably are some doctors and lawyers who end up being translators from Japanese, although so far I met only one such a doctor who is or was a very good translator of medical texts. I once had a really difficult Japanese patent to translate (a lovely thing about an ointment for hemorrhoids) and he proofread it for me. This was in mid nineties before you could easily check complicated Japanese and English terms on the Internet.

    But still, my question is:

    Since a good doctor can make much more than a good translator, why would you as a doctor want to translate instead?
    Probably because for some reason you can’t make a living as a doctor would be my guess.

    Also, it is of course much easier to learn German than for example Japanese or Chinese, which would explain why your experience has been so different from mine.

    I am trying to make people think about this strange term “bilingual expert” which so many agencies like to throw around so much on their websites as in “we don’t use translators (truth be told, we despise them), we only work with ‘bilingual experts'”.

    What does it really mean? Who are these “bilingual experts”? Can they really translate if they had no formal training in linguistics and translation?

    I think that most of them are really lousy translators, at least that was my experience with them so far and I am hardly the only one, see reaction by Maria Cornelio to my article published some time ago in the ATA Chronicle:


  7. Amen! Worst of all, they do not realize that while they may be translating fairly accurately, the target rendering is just not good. They do not recognize structural differences, let alone idioms, regionalisms, quirks. The difficulty, if not impossibility, of translating such things as “work-arounds” may be fun for “real” translators, but who knows what for the “experts”?


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  9. [quote]But still, my question is:

    Since a good doctor can make much more than a good translator, why would you as a doctor want to translate instead?
    Probably because for some reason you can’t make a living as a doctor would be my guess.[/quote]

    Uh … how much is your annual premium for malpractice insurance, and what are the liability limit and the deductible? Mid six figure premiums for a $1mil cap for a single occurrence/$3 million anual liability limit, are not uncommon. What’s that? You don’t HAVE malpractice insurance? Consider yourself fortunate.

    Also, I don’t know many (ANY) translators who took on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans—which, as you know, cannot be discharged through bankruptcy—to get through school. Median med school debt in 2018 was $200k. That’s just for a vanilla BM or MD: if you’re in a specialty that requires additional training (surgery, oncology, internal med, etc.) add another $100k-300k, depending on specialty. And don’t forget to add your undergrad loans.

    And let’s not forget the various professional, license, partnership, hospital credentialing fees, annual continuing ed (mandated by state medical boards) fees.

    I NET almost as much annually now as a freelance translator and editor as I did when I retired after 27 years of surgical practice. Have MUCH less stress, too.


  10. Good points. Thank you for commenting.


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