Posted by: patenttranslator | September 21, 2012

Artlessness, Sloth, Obfuscation and Muddy Thinking Can Be Very Difficult to Translate

The imbecility of our condition is such that things cannot, in their natural simplicity and purity, fall into our use; the elements that we enjoy are changed, and so ’tis with metals; and gold must be debased with some other matter to fit it for our service.

That We Taste Nothing Pure, Michel de Montaigne, (1533 ~ 1592).

Yesterday I was translating a Japanese patent. It went very smoothly until I started translating the claims. It was an old patent, almost three decades old, and quite a simple one, until I started translating the claims, as I already said.

I usually translate the claims at the end, although unlike patents in European languages, Japanese patents start with claims. This is how the Japanese mind thinks: first you define the topic of the exercise so that the rest can then naturally follow from this topic. Western mind uses the opposite approach: first you give some background for orientation, and eventually you work your way to the object of the exercise once proper definitions have been established.

Actually, the claims were fine too, except for claim 3. It should have been a short and sweet claim, only about 40 words, which would be about 80 Japanese characters. But although I looked at the 80 characters once, twice, and then one more time, and although I understood all the words, the way these words were put together made no sense to me.

I usually have a machine translation to point me in another direction when I am drawing a blank, sometime the right direction, sometime the wrong one. But because this patent was so old, there was no machine translation. I have to admit, a machine will often find the right solution where human brain is grasping for the truth in vain. It is probably based on the application of an old law that says that the easiest explanation is almost always correct, called Occam’s razor after William Occam, a Franciscan friar from 14th century England. The machine will simply insert the easiest solution, while human brain (or at least this one) looks for all kinds of hidden meanings.

So, my next step in these situations is to take look at the figures to try to figure out what the author of a cryptic sentence might have meant. I did that, and still could not understand it.

Because it was not a rush job, I figured I would translate the last sentence next day, because often, La nuit porte conseil, as they say in French (morning brings advice).

But the next morning I was still as clueless about the meaning of that short sentence as the day before.

So I did the next logical thing left to me: I took another look at the figures, plus the other claims that I was able to translate without any problem, and then I translated the obstinate sentence so that it would make sense based on the information available to me.

Was it the correct translation? I don’t know. It made sense to me, and hopefully also to the client. It may or may not be what the original text says because the meaning of the original text is unknowable, at least to me.

What is the correct translation of something that does not make sense?

There is no such thing. The correct translation in this case would be to translate something that does not make sense in one language so that it would not make sense in exactly the same way in another language. But this is usually impossible when we are talking about languages as dissimilar as Japanese and English.

Plus the client would not be happy about it. They would e-mail me, angrily demanding clarification. If something does not makes sense, it is always the translator’s fault! Shoot the translator first and ask questions later!

If the Japanese patent agent who wrote the application was in his sixties almost thirty years ago when he wrote that logic-defying sentence, he is probably dead by now. So without a ouija board, I could not ask him what he meant even if I could track him down, which would be another near impossibility.

Did he do it on purpose to stake a broad claim to a technology that would suddenly emerge as a source of lucrative royalties thirty years down the road?

I will never know.

It is certainly possible that claim 3 was the result of very clever and prescient obfuscation, although Occam’s razor says that it is more likely that said claim was the result of artlessness, sloth and muddy thinking.


  1. Just a little correction: it should be “La nuit porte conseil”.


  2. Merci.

    How could I have missed it?


    • I just assumed you were playing “Cherchez l’erreur”…


  3. […] The imbecility of our condition is such that things cannot, in their natural simplicity and purity, fall into our use; the elements that we enjoy are changed, and so ’tis with metals; and gol…  […]


  4. Steve, once I told one of my client jokingly that the art of translation consists sometimes in making sense out of nonsense. It was such a situation as you described above, when the text in the original doesn’t make sense at all.


  5. BTW, the song sung by Salvatore Adamo reminds me of our younger days when Teresa Teng was singing 雪が降る (Tombe la neige)

    and 別れの朝 (Was ich sagen will)

    in Japan. And we hear both in Admo’s and Teresa’s singing the interesting accents with slight grammatical errors. That’s why people like listening them singing songs not of their native languages.


  6. It should be “Was ich dir sagen will” and here is a duet of José Carreras and Udo Jürgens in German and Spanish:

    Such songs are just wonderful sung in any language.


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