Posted by: patenttranslator | December 24, 2011

Is There Such a Thing As an Unsafe Translating Speed?

This is like asking what is a safe driving speed for a car. It depends on what kind of car you have, what kind of driver you are, and where you drive it. In a residential area with little children playing cops and robbers in the streets, 25 miles per hour is unsafe. On a German autobahn, you can push the pedal to the metal without breaking the law. How long you will live if you keep doing that is another matter.

I know that my typical speed on a typical patent translation is about 2 to 3 thousand words a day. I can translate Japanese patents faster than German patents, probably because I have started translating German only about 15 years ago, while my first technical translation from Japanese would be from … 1979. If it is a relatively simple patent in a field that I know fairly well such as telecommunications, I can average from 4 to a little over 5 thousand words a day. But I can’t sustain a speed like that for more than a few days.

After 5 thousand English words, the words begin to lose their meaning and my brain goes into a “brain freeze”. The brain functions related to translating stop working due to the fatigue, or perhaps it is attrition, after a long translating session. Time is definitely needed for regeneration of these brain functions, preferably 8 hours of sleep. Even if there are many repetitive passage in a patent as there almost always are, it is just too dangerous to just cut and paste them while making the appropriate changes. After a few thousand words, I can no longer see where the damn changes are hiding in the paragraph this time.

Three days ago I bought a new desktop PC as a Christmas present for myself. I know that it is dangerous to do something like that when I am on a deadline because I will inevitably kill most of the day loading software and new printer drivers onto the new PC and trying to network it with my other computers. But I figured that I can afford to kill a day because I had 4 days for a Japanese patent that would have only about 8 thousand words. Plus like so many people, I like “multitasking”, which can be quite a dangerous condition. Young people these days are multitasking everything nonstop. Last week a teenage girl was running pretty fast on a machine next to me in the gym where I work out while texting even faster something undoubtedly very important on her cell phone.

I could never have that much coordination, but I can translate while I am fine-tuning a new high-tech toy, right?

But when I looked at the calendar on my PC, I saw to my horror that it was not Thursday today, it was already Friday! I make a mistake like this every now and then because one day is just like the next one when you work in your home office, although usually I am one day ahead of time. And the patent in question was quite nasty, a lot of very complicated chemical terms and concepts, the translation was going much slower than what I had anticipated.

So for 4 hours I was sitting on my butt, pounding relentlessly on the keyboard and trying to concentrate while cursing myself for being so stupid. There is a big difference between having to translate 2 thousand words and 3 thousand words a day when the text is really complicated.

Fortunately, after 4 hours of near desperation I realized by looking at the newspaper that it was in fact Thursday and not Friday. I clicked on the wrong time zone when I was setting up my new computer! So everything is under control and on schedule now, I will finish the translation by Monday and I even have time to write a short post for my blog.

I was so happy when I got this day that so mysteriously disappeared from my life back again. A huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.

As Horace put it some two thousand years ago, “Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines”, which basically means that everything should be done in moderation, including rush translation jobs.

There is such a thing as a dangerous driving speed, and there is such a thing as a dangerous translating speed, and I don’t care what kind of memory tools you use and how much cutting and pasting there is in your translation.

After a few thousand words, I can no longer catch mistakes that I would normally never make when I am rested and ready to take on the world, or at least a major translation project.

Next time when I have the urge do something stupid like buy a new cool and time consuming toy when I am working on a tight deadline, I will hopefully remember the agony that I felt when a whole day somehow disappeared into thin air.

Because Gods may not be as merciful to me next time when it is not Christmas.


  1. Thank you, Steve. Enjoyed your piece very much as I always do.

    This thing about mixing up the current date happens to me, too. In 99 percent of the cases I assume yesterday’s date to be today’s date, NEVER the other way around. Does that reveal something about my attitude to my work?

    “Even if there are many repetitive passage in a patent as there almost always are, it is just too dangerous to just cut and paste them while making the appropriate changes. After a few thousand words, I can no longer see where the damn changes are hiding in the paragraph this time.”

    Now, when I read this, I feel the urge to repeat myself at the risk of sounding like a bl..dy preacher:
    Get yourself a decent Translation Environment Tool (CAT tool), and it will
    1 – look for repetitions and similar sentences and display them to you
    2 – highlight the differences between the sentence you are working on and the other sentence so you won’t get eye strain and brain freeze…


    get your self a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking or use the SR functionality of WIN 7…

    and 5000 words a day will be a breeze.

    I’m currently working on a rather involved and long-winded legal text which I need to finish before year-end. The day before yesterday, I started working on it at nine in the morning, decided to cook lunch (I love to cook, and lunch is the main meal around our home), then went out to buy some fresh fruit and veggies for the holidays, and still finished five and a half thousand words by five-thirty PM, thanks to my Translation Environment Tool, my Speech Recognition software and my wireless microphone that allowed me to wander through my room while I unravelled the labyrinthine sentences of a corporate legal officer on overtime. Not so bad, is it?

    So, make your life easier, Steve.

    My exhortations aren’t entirely altruistic, actually. The faster your work, the more time you will have to write your blog, and the more will we be hearing from you.



  2. Hi Volkmar:

    I know you mean well, but I don’t believe that a CAT or two would work for me. I would have to convert PDF files first, which is a major hassle, and then learn the software.

    I’ll just do it the old fashioned way until …. I don’t know, until something changes my mind, which may or may not happen.

    Dragonfly software would also probably not work for me with convoluted Japanese sentences because I keep changing the order of the clauses in the sentence and other things, depending on what makes more sense and sounds better in English.

    If I can translate five thousand five hundred words too on a good day without changing a thing, why should I?

    And I will always find some time to write a post in between working as long as somebody is reading it.


  3. You guys are amazing with your 5,000+ words, and I don’t know how you do it. I use CAT tools (mostly Trados), and I can still only do maybe 3,000 words max during a 10-hour day. I guess it’s all down to experience and practise and, of course, your superior awesomeness 😉

    Congratulations on your new computer, by the way! My (only) computer crashed last week, and I spent an entire day fixing it. I was very close to just driving to an Apple store and getting an over-priced but much more reliable Macbook. Fortunately, I got the old one working again.


  4. It’s not 5,000 words every day, of course. Usually it’s only about 3,000 words in my case without any tools, which I will probably resist to the bitter end. But of course there is some cutting and pasting in some patents, although I try not to overdo it because it is easy to make a mistake.

    My backup system is that every 2 years or so I buy a new computer. Since I back up new files continuously plus the monthly portion at the end of each month, I would just junk a desktop if it crashed and replace it by another as I have 3 desktops (plus 1 laptop and 1 tablet).

    After 2 years there is usually too much junk like unwanted crapware on my hard disk anyway, so I just rotate the PCUs and throw the oldest and slowest one out every 2 years or so. As you know, Moore’s law says that the processing speed of your computer and thus also other characteristics approximately double every two years.

    Happy New Year!
    Hope to see you and the gang in January!


  5. I am sometimes forced to stop and say, “Wait a minute! What in the crap does this mean?!” When, as in the case of political claptrap in French — which does nothing so well as expressing meaningless claptrap in the most abstract terms (think Dominique de Villepin) — I realize it means nothing, I now give myself the “out” of not continuing.

    This also happens when translating Communist Party claptrap, from Cuba in particular. How the skill to write this junk is acquired is too dark a concept to dwell upon.

    As for losing a day, Samoa and Tokelau recently changed time zones, so they “lost” 30 December. How such a thing is possible is like trying to understand quantum mechanics. If they change back, do they get it back, and what did they do on that day? Was that day just in some sort of space limbo?


  6. My impression is that there is not really that much difference between the propaganda that was printed in Pravda or Izvestija and what I now read in NYT or Washington Post.

    Back in the seventies, I got most of what I needed to know about the world around me from the news on the BBC and I read Rude Pravo (the “organ” of the Communist party) mostly to figure out what is it that they decided to omit and how do they slant now what they deem “fit to print”.

    This is exactly how I read now NYT or WaPo these days. It usually takes me only a few minutes to go through the newspaper, just like when I was “reading” Rude Pravo. Back then I had to go for real information to short waves on my radio, nowadays I go to the Internet for real information.

    There is occasionally an interesting article in NYT or WaPo, just like there was occasionally an interesting article in Rude Pravo 40 years ago.

    But the corporate propaganda angle in American newspapers is today as strong as the communist propaganda angle was in communist newspapers a decade or two before the whole system collapsed under its own weight.


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