A translation agency sent me recently a formatting sample of a translation of a Japanese patent that it wanted me to imitate.
When I translate patents from a European language such as French or German, I always automatically imitate the format in the original language to make it possible for the people who will use my translation to find relevant words and numbers in the original text.
This is not a problem with French because the word count in French is about the same as in English. I can use the same font and the same formatting. It is a little bit more complicated with German because German has many compound nouns. For example “Nukleinsäuremoleküle” is one word in German, but “nucleic acid molecules” are three words in English, which takes up slightly more space than a single long German word. But 核酸分子 (kakusanbunshi) in Japanese, which means nucleic acid molecule(s) in English, takes up in Japanese about a third of the space that you need in English, which is the main reason why it is very difficult to “mirror” Japanese formatting in English translation when there is a lot of Japanese text on a single page, and old Japanese Kokai patents have on average about 1,200 words on a single paper page divided into 4 small pages.
So instead of trying to cram as many English words in a tiny font onto one page, which would make it very difficult to read for anybody over the age of 40, I just create two columns for my translation so that it would look like the Japanese columns, although there will be fewer English words on one page.
It is now much easier to compare English translations of Japanese patent applications to the original text, for instance to double check numbers and look for missing sentences or paragraphs, because every paragraph in the Japanese patent application is now numbered, and also because larger fonts have been used for Japanese patent applications filed since about 1980 as availability of storage space is no longer a problem.
So the main purpose of the “mirror formatting” would now be probably mostly to reassure the customer that the English translation is very much the same thing as the original text.
I am all for reassuring the customers. They certainly have a lot to worry about when they order a translation from a language that they don’t understand. Unfortunately, reassuring formatting says absolutely nothing about the quality of the translation.
When I took a closer look at the translation, I saw that it had a number of problems, in my opinion serious problems.
The formatting was beautiful: 4 small pages in 2 columns and with a header, it looked very much like the Japanese page. Except that the 4 pages in English did not correspond to the Japanese text at all for reasons explained above. How could they be “mirrored” when you can only fit about 6 hundred words on a page with 4 segments in English in a 12-point font, and the original page with 4 segments in Japanese would correspond to about 1,000 words in English? So if the customer tries to find numbers or paragraphs in an old patent prior to numbering of paragraphs based on the English translation, he would be out of luck. But, hey, whatever works, most customers will probably not dig that deep.
Then I took a closer look at the original and the translation. To begin with, the title of the patent was wrong: the Japanese word エルシナン (erushinan) was misspelled in English as “elsian”. This typo was then repeated dozens of times in the text. There is an Elsian Park in Los Angeles, and Google told me that “elsian” is also a fan-fiction author (whatever that means) who has written 4 stories for Thor, Avengers, and X-Men, as well as the first name of somebody on LinkedIn. But “elsian” is not “an essentially linear a-D-glucan containing a-1,4- and 1,3-linkages (ratio, 2.6:1)”, which is what the Japanese patent agent who wrote the Japanese patent application meant.
That would be “elsinan”, as the Japanese transliteration of this word (erushinan) into katakana, a Japanese alphabet used for transcribing foreign words, clearly indicates to anybody who knows basic Japanese. If you lose the “n” sound in the middle of the word, it is a completely different word.
But that did not matter to this translator. Elsian, elsinan, same difference.
It is very easy to find the correct translation for an odd word like “erushinan” in English. I found the correct translation within a few seconds both on the website of the JPO (Japanese Patent Office) and on the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) website with a few key strokes. You could even find the correct spelling in English by simply Googling it in Japanese.
The translator who produced the template that I was asked to use in my translations apparently did not feel it necessary to confirm the correct translation of this word.
The structure of the English sentences was slavishly copied from Japanese. That was in fact the main problem with this translation. It is much faster to translate from Japanese when you simply follow the order in Japanese, but this makes it very difficult to follow the meaning in English. I sometime use the slavish approach myself for a while when I don’t want to get lost in a very long sentence, but I always then go back and rearrange the order of what is being said so that it would look like an English sentence.
This translator did not bother with rearranging anything.
At first I thought that the patent was translated by a fairly smart guy in China or India who knows enough Japanese and English to produce a fairly understandable translation of a fairly simple Japanese patent into English.
But it was written by a native speaker of English. When I clicked on the properties icon in MS Word, I saw that I know this translator, or at least that I know of him. I know for example that he lived and worked for many years in Japan and that he has an advanced degree in a relevant technical field from one of the best universities in the United States. I know this because he once sent me his resume.
This resume was so impressive that I actually read it. The guy seemed to have everything going for him, but as far as I can tell, only on paper. The translation was not that bad, the meaning was certainly understandable if you don’t mind putting up with misspelled words and tortured English sentences. I have seen worse translations, although I hope that I would produce something like that only on a really bad day if I am too tired or out of my depth, hopefully less than once in a decade.
But when it comes to languages like Japanese, many customers are probably used to even worse translations. And because they don’t complain, wonderful formatting of a translation that is full of typos and tortured grammar is glorified by a translation agency as a model of what a translation should look like.