Posted by: patenttranslator | January 26, 2012

Translators Are Among The Most Difficult And Possibly The Strangest People On This Planet – But You Can’t Really Call Them Stupid

As a translator/translation agency hybrid, I happen to know that translators are among the most difficult and possibly the strangest people on this planet. Difficult as in working with them and getting along with them. They get really angry very easily for all kinds of strange reasons, usually at the wrong person.

I once sent a short patent for translation to a French translator. He sent me back his translation with a scornful e-mail that was full of indignation, (which must have been directed at me, right?), in which he described the patent as “stupid garbage”. I picked his name from the ATA database and it said right there that he specialized in patents. He forgot to mention that he only likes to translate patents that are really clever and very well written.

So I never sent him another job, of course. I have never personally come across a patent that I would describe as “stupid garbage”, especially to the person who pays me to translate it. All patents are gold to me – they pay my bills! I take it personally when people are disrespectful to patents!

Wife’s generic descriptive term for a translator is “henjin” (変人). The first character means “strange” and the second means “person”. When we talk to a translator, these days usually through Skype, she always says to me after the end of the conversation something like “yappari, kare mo henjin da ne” (it sure looks like he’s a weirdo too). She noticed that when a translator is an easygoing, pleasant and engaging person to talk to, he is not really a translator, he just dabbles into translation and does mostly something else for a living. I must say that it is usually spot on.

She has been hating with a burning fury a certain Japanese translator for 23 years now. She calls him Teru-Teru, which sounds really funny and demeaning in Japanese, because Teru-Teru committed an unforgivable crime 23 years ago. Because he dropped and broke an antique lacquer rice bowl when we were having a dinner with him and his wife, we now have to eat our rice from a rice bowl that is not quite as antique.

Since she is mentioning the vile and dirty deed perpetrated by Teru-Teru on average three times a year, I must have heard her describe this unforgivable act that reduced her to having to eat her rice from a rice bowl that is less than a hundred years old about 66 times so far.

So in addition to being difficult to get along with, translators are clearly also extremely clumsy.

However, my wife also understands that translators can be sometime really useful in spite of the fact that they are generally inferior in most respects to most other human beings who are not translators. After all, she married one of them 28 years ago.

She grudgingly acknowledges that a translator who unlike her can speak really fluently several languages must be in fact really smart, or as she puts it, translators are 馬鹿 (baka) and 天才 (tensai) at the same time.

“Baka” means “a dumb person, a fool” and “tensai” means “a genius”. One of her favorite Japanese proverbs is “天才と馬鹿は紙一重” (tensai to baka wa kamihitoe), which means something like “there is a very slight difference between a genius and a crazy person”.

So she really considers translators to be both really dumb and really smart, sort of like idiot-savants, I think.

There are women who like to wear T-shirts or put stickers on their cars that refer to their regrettable choice of a life companion or husband by saying something like “I’m with stupid”. But I have never seen a T-shirt or car sticker that would say in English “I’m with Idiot-Savant”.

I have not been to Japan in many years, but I doubt that a Japanese wife would wear a T-shirt that would be so openly disrespectful of her husband. It goes against the Japanese culture. If you want to disrespect your husband, you do it in private in Japan.

Except, of course, when the words on the T-shirt are in English and the wife does not understand what the words mean, which is usually the case.

There probably are quite a few Japanese women who walk around in Japan with a T-shirt that says “I’m with stupid” who have no idea what those words mean.

After all, they are not translators.


  1. You could have also used the discussion on my blog as a good example of this too.


  2. But I could not have done it because you closed off the comments.


    • I had to Steve. I was translating a huge survey and didn’t have time to deal with the craziness that threatened to ensue since I look at every comment. There’s enough gold there to mine as it is.


  3. ええ、違うよ!私は変人じゃないよ。Or so I’d like to think. 😉


  4. 多分変女だ?


  5. Of course, 天才と馬鹿は紙一重 – there was a film in Hong Kong titled 天才与白痴 telling a story of people who behave like translators. And translators are definitely 変人. On one hand, they frequently complain about too much work, and on the other hand, they seem to have too much time at hand to spend on writings that don’t get them jobs from agencies.

    However, I appreicate this writing of yours as other writings, Mr. Vitek. Thank you!


  6. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    But I have to say, the feast and famine syndrome is really hard to get used to even after 25 years.

    That’s why people keep complaining about it.


  7. What does the character 与 mean in Chinese in this context?

    In Japanese it means “to give, to provide”.

    Does the title of the movie mean “A Genius Turns Into an Idiot?”


  8. As a verb, the character 与 means the same as “to give, to provide” in Chinese. But it is uses in this context as a conjunction like the Japanese conjuction と in 天才と馬鹿. In fact, the Chinese phrase conveys the same meaning of the Japanese proverb. It is an ecliptic. The whole sentence would be 天才与白痴,纸一重。(The difference between genius and idiot is a thin layer of paper.) The postposition は is replaced by a comma in Chinese.

    By the way, I like the songs you choose for each post, especially the one by Alla Pugacheva. I listen to her songs since 1978 when she sang “Песенка про меня.” The same song is interpreted by A-Studio in New Wave (can be found in Youtube unter “Так же, как все”), a pleasure to listen to. “В горький час, когда смертельно не везет, говорю, что везет все равно.” Isn’t it much the same as a translator would feel from time to time?

    In our business like in other ones, it is about power and money, like Germans say, “Es geht darum, wer die Hosen anhat.” Although agencies and translators share the same lot, translators are just as dumb, clumsy or lame as bakas, most of the time. No wonder they lose the game, most of the time. Sometimes, I believe that we, the established ones, are just lucky to be able to make sense out of nonsense. (The art of translation consists of making sense out of nonsense.) I would take it personally, if anyone calls the manuals and marketing materials that provide me food and shelter “stupid garbage.”


  9. Thank you for your explanation.
    The Japanese proverb was probably originally a Chinese proverb.

    I really like the lyrics in that song, originally a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva.

    So Russian, so untranslatable …..


  10. Well, Mr. Vitek, since Chinese and Japanese have been infulencing each other in a long period of time, we can never tell if the proverb came from which one. I haven´t the least idea of its origin.

    Similar phenomena can be found in European languages, too. There are so many words, phrases and proverbs shared among Romanic or Slavic languages. Though Japanese and Chinese belong to different language families (different grammars), they share quite a few common expressions.

    I once asked my Russian teacher what the Russian soul is, she said, there is no way to define it, you have to live in it. Alla´s songs are something like that, almost impossible to translate, like this one: Старый друг – – The words are rather simple, but they goes deeply into your heart that you don´t know anymore how to express the same in other words. Good translations/writings are for me like songs that are once done and can never be revised. You have to sing as the lyrics go.


  11. Do you think (only) translators correct errors in other persons’ grammar and/or speech (only relatives and never in front of others)? My older son (45) is in open revolt about this, even though I try to be careful AND quick, but he did not speak like that as a child/teenager. I HATE what I have come to call “California English,” the best or worst examples of which might well be “Her and her husband went to the movies,” or “Me and my friend went to the movies,” or “Myself and my partner did this or that” (police talk).

    Does one just give up?


  12. Who am I to correct my kids’ English, especially considering that it is not even my first language and I speak it with a foreign accent?

    Here in the South it’s redneck country and many people have a really strong North Carolina accent. I kind of like it and don’t like it.

    One of my son in particular talks like a redneck, which is OK when he talks to his friends, but I had to fix his English when his English essays for school were written in redneckese too. He is in California now, moving to San Francisco next month, so hopefully he will lose most of his Southern accent.

    The other son, who is in his third year at the University of Virginia, writes much better English, but it’s still not very good in my opinion. He loves to use popular new words like “sketchy”. Everything is “sketchy” to him.

    They don’t seem to be teaching correct English at Virginia high schools and universities these days, even at UVa which is supposed to be a really good school. A big part of the problem is that kids don’t read books anymore, they just keep texting each other, which means that they are consciously using fewer and fewer words.


  13. I’ve done a little bit research on Marina Tsvetayeva and found some English, French and German literal and less literal translations of “Мне нравится.”

    Most translations have a problem with the rendering of the word “больн-” at the beginning and at the end of the poem. The best one is a German translation done by Karin Elster ( I am glad to have found this translation in German.


  14. That German translation is simply horrible.

    “bei Verstand sein?”

    Whoever translated this should stick to refrigerator manuals.


  15. Well, Mr. Vitek, “bei Verstand sein” is a literary translation meaning “not going mad for/about” for the expressions of “что вы больны не мной,” “что я больна не вами,” “что вы больны – увы! – не мной!” and “что я больна – увы!- не вами!”

    I like Karin Elster’s rendering of this especially for its coincidence with the reserved tone of Tsvetayeva’s poem. We read in the original the verb “любить” only once and to wit in an understated tone.

    There are several other renderings in other languages, for instance, “mad about you”, “mad for me,” “crazy about” and “crazy for” in English. They are somehow too literal and too explicit for me, while “bei Verstand” is implicit and reserved.

    I found Karin Elster’s translation at the above given link of “Voice of Russia.” It was a broadcast on March 6, 2011. There are some other poems and songs interlaced in the broadcast. I find the production pretty good, except the song “Сильная Женщина” sung by Alla Pugacheva, which lyrics somehow do not fit well in the content of the broadcast. Otherwise, they have done a good job. And I guess they have their reasons to have chosen Elster’s rendering of the poem in despite of some other existing translations. One of the reasons could be the literary approach of Karin Elster’s.


  16. BTW, Mr. Vitek, we translate patents and/or manuals for a living. They are gold to us. If you regarded manuals less valuable, I would be very pissed. ;o)


  17. “Bei Verstand sein” is much too cold.

    The poem is based on the idea of (not) being love-sick, like a love-sick teenager, or like Goethe when he was 90.

    That’s why I did not like the translation with “bei Verstand”.

    This is one of those really clever poems that one cannot really understand, which means that you can project your own meaning into it. It is so well written that it’s completely impossible to translate it and do a good job of it.

    Why don’t you send me information about your patent translation services and rates?

    I need in particular another translator of chemical patents from Chinese to English. Chinese is your native language, correct?


  18. Dear Mr. Vitek,

    It could be a matter of taste that you don’t regard “bei Verstand sein” a proper translation for “больн-” while I take it for a proper one. I know that Tsvetayeva meant to say “liebeskrank”, but she did not say it explicitly. The verb “любить” was used only once in the last stanza, videlicet in a played down tone. It would be weird to translate the first line “Wie froh bin ich, dass ich nicht Ihretwegen liebeskrank bin!” or “Wie froh bin ich, dass ich Ihretwegen keinen Liebeskummer habe!” Even “Wie froh bin ich, dass ich Ihretwegen nicht krank bin!” won’t do.

    “Bei Verstand sein” sounds sober and cold. But don’t you think the Germans tend to be that way? What Goethe did when he was 90 wasn’t “beim guten Verstand,” either!

    All right, de gustibus non est disputantum.

    Thank you for your offer of collaboration in translating from Chinese into English. Chinese is indeed my native language, but English isn’t. I used to be proud of my competence in several languages and tried to translate from Chinese into other languages. Wendell Ricketts has convinced me some years ago that I would hardly pass the so-called “come si dice” test and since then I don’t do translations into non-native languages. Besides, I’ve found it more economical for me during these years that I stay with translations into my native language, while I do collaborate with translators whose native languages are different than mine when they translate from Chinese into their native ones or when I am doing linguistic validation.

    I will send you an e-mail, recommending someone who grew up with English and Chinese, who is competent in both languages and has a sound basis in chemistry and biochemistry.

    Thanks again for the interesting posts and the kind conversation with me!

    Best regards,
    Wenjer H. Leuschel


  19. But anybody can write in his native language or translate into his native language.

    Where’s the fun in that? I call something like that a dog and pony show.

    St. Jerome realized already seventeen hundred years ago that it would be much more fun to translate the Bible into Latin than into his native language. So that’s what he did.

    I am just following in his steps.


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  21. Oh, dear! Anyone can write in his own language or translate into his own language? Not so, innocent child! Neither write in, nor spell at all, as in the case of one of my kids’ science teacher, who had several spellings for both “fiercest” and “dinosaur.” Another teacher did not mark misspellings for fear of hurting their little personalities.

    As for translating into one’s native language, you would have but to see (FBI) transcript translations. OMG!!! (Don’t ask!)

    Then there is the spellcheck “ap” that came with my computer, which suggests “variants” for words already spelled properly. I have pages and pages of these, but a few examples: For Pontius Pilate, Pontiff, Pontiac, Pantsuit, Hynotism and, get this, in absentia. For Hitlerian, Hitler (!), Valerian, Spenglerian, Historian, Intolerant (!!) and, lest one not have the gift of deduction, Tolerant. For Republic, Re pubic, Scrapbook and Brewpub. For plethoric, plethora, Maplethorpe (!), Oglethorpe (?), Paleolithic and metaphoric. Not to be ignored: for persecutorial, both piscatorial and postdoctoral!!!

    So don’t be getting all persecutorial, lest you be thought post-doctoral!!!


  22. “Innocent child?”

    That was the nicest thing anybody said to me in … like …. 55 years!


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