Posted by: patenttranslator | February 6, 2013

Do Not Commit Suicide If A Customer Hates Your Translation!

It is bound to happen to all of us at some point, sometime for somewhat legitimate reasons, sometime for completely illegitimate reasons. When somebody orders a new house to be built by a builder, the customer will specify in great detail whether it should be a wooden California bungalow, or a Santa Fe style adobe mud hut. Both have about the same square footage and they may cost about the same, but they look very different.

But when somebody orders a patent translation, there are often no clues to the desired style. Sometime the customer does specify the terms to be used and an absurd situation is created because the patentese lingo suggested by the customer will inevitably clash with what the document says. I have had customers tell me that I should never use “wherein” in German patent claims, only “whereby”. One customers said that I should always translate “ dadurch charakterisiert, daß as “wherein”, not “characterized in that”. But when I used “wherein” in this manner in a translation for another lawyer, he claimed that the entire patent was mistranslated.

I was also told by a customer never to translate 従来 (jurai) as “prior art”, and use “existing” or “conventional” instead, which kind of makes sense, except that 従来 (jurai) is clearly an abbreviation for 従来の技術, (jurai no gijutsu) which means that “prior art” would also make sense.  先行の技術 (senko no gijutsu) is a more literal translation of “prior art”, but it is hardly ever used by Japanese patent agents, while English speaking patent agents love the term “prior art”. I could go on and on.

I was told both that my translation was too literal, and that it was not literal enough (which would be an easy fix – you simply make it more literal or less literal, right?) Because the wife of one inventor was Japanese, she carefully proofread my translations for her husband and promptly suggested that I make several changes. Except that what they wanted me to say in English, while it was a logical conclusion based on the technology, was not really mentioned in the Japanese patent at all. I usually try to meet people half way as much as possible because I obviously want to get paid, but I have to do it without mistranslating something or adding something that is not there, which is sometime very difficult.

I don’t have to deal with an unhappy customer very often, perhaps once every 3 years or so, but when it does happen, it drives me crazy because it means that after days of work, I may not be paid for my work.

Translation is more art than science and different people will naturally have very different opinions about how things should be translated.

I look at it this way: many of the bests writers, composers, painters and other artists, those who changed history, were often completely ignored by their contemporaries. Van Gogh was able to sell only a couple of paintings while he was still alive. The great baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi was only modestly popular while he was still alive, his amazing music was forgotten for more than a century, it was only rediscovered in the twentieth century and now you hear it everywhere you go. Franz Kafka never published anything during his life and he doubted his talent so much that on his deathbed he made his friend Max Brod promise that everything he wrote would be burnt. Max Brod decided to betray his friend as he did not carry out Kafka’s wish – and Kafka became one of the most important writers of the 20th century, partly because his nightmarish visions were soon to become reality: first under fascism, then under communism, and now under corporatism.

So in this respect, we translators are probably still a little bit better off than artists because the evaluation of our work is not as subjective and open to different interpretations and misinterpretations as there is some science in our art, although as far as I can tell, the talk about “universal metrics” and “ISO methods” and other criteria is just commercial propaganda.


One thing that is never mentioned by either translators or their clients is the sad fact that we are often asked to translate crap that makes little or no sense and there is not much we can do about it. Because I translate mostly patents, I have to deal with a lot of crap. Some of the patent agents don’t seem to know their own language very well as they sometime use the wrong Japanese characters, and they often mess up transliteration of foreign words into Japanese katakana which makes them hard to figure out.

My favorite example is a well know Hitachi patent agent who kept transliterating in his patent application the English word “analog”, which should be “anarogu” in Japanese, as “anaguro“. (Anaguro probably means something too, it sounds like a newly discovered Australian animal).

When I searched for “anaguro” (アナグロ) instead of “anarogu” (アナログ) which would be the correct Japanese word, I got 13 patent applications on the Japan Patent Office Website, and 8 patent applications on the World Intellectual Property Office website. If you write “anagol” instead of “analog” once or twice, it’s a typo. If you keep writing “anagol” in the entire document, the whole document is a typo. This is just one example of how poorly these patent applications are often written in Japanese and other languages.

When I translate correspondence between Japanese Patent Office examiners and Japanese patent agents, the examiners often cite a Japanese sentence, and then ask with indignation: “What is this even supposed to mean?” That is what I am asking myself all the time.

My translation is merely my interpretation of what I think the document means, or should mean. What is a good translation of something that is written so poorly or ambiguously, probably on purpose, that it does not really make sense? Something that is written equally poorly or ambiguously  that it does not really make sense in English either? Most of the time, it is not really possible to create something like that, especially between very different languages like Japanese and English, but also between other languages that are not that different, such as German and English.

But I think that a better approach is to translate a monstrous construction into something that makes a little bit more sense in English. Otherwise the client will be blaming the translator. Since he has no idea how insane the original constructions were in the foreign language, his instinct will be to shoot the translator first, without even asking any questions later.


If somebody hates your translation, try not to commit suicide, or hate them back for it. It is not their fault if they don’t understand your genius! Remember, the same thing happened to many geniuses of equal caliber before you: El Greco, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Gaugin, they were all struggling their whole life to make people notice their talent.

But you don’t have to drink yourself to death like Poe or die of a horrible disease like Gaugin. All you have to do is sell your next translation to somebody else. The world is full of people who need our translations, and some of them may be even able to appreciate our work, although admittedly, not that many.



  1. Honest and well written! A pleasure to read.


  2. Only a couple of days ago I translated a VERY complicated and VERY urgent German-Russian trade agreement only to find out that the client, eventually, would like me to “accept and factor in some necessary changes in the translation when producing your invoice, for the sake of our future collaboration”. Needless to say, the changes the client’s company referred to were followup changes in the source text (they “corrected” the Russian translation by themselves, with lots of mistakes etc.). After I told them what I think of all this, they probably hate both me and my translation. The upside is this company is the first client in my over 20 years experience who hates the translation due to the changes in the original (or rather for having to pay full price for this translation). Well, another reason for a customer to hate your translation (and for a translator to not commit suicide).


  3. In this case I would try to accommodate the client, especially if it is a direct client who may have a lot of work later.

    Life is not fair, I know.


  4. Great post, as always. The trick truly is to never take it personally but instead know what you yourself are worth. I’ve had the opposite happen to me: I outsourced a translation project to another translator and had agreed a fair rate with her (leaving me with only a narrow margin), only to find that her quality was lacking. I paid her because I wanted to keep my side of the promise, but I spent a lot of time fixing her translation. Needless to say, I will never again outsource any work to her.


  5. The same thing happened to me too a few times, of course.


  6. “Translation is more art than science and different people will naturally have very different opinions about how things should be translated.”

    Someone said, “There is no such thing as a perfect translation. There isn’t even such a thing as a translation most people would consider pretty good.” However, we know whether a translation is a mistranslation or not: “…our work is not as subjective and open to different interpretations and misinterpretations as there is some science in our art…”

    Life is unfair. To find out the quality of a translation colleague’s being not good enough for one’s client really really hurts, but it’s your responsibility to fix the job. I got one of the situation recently and I am now fixing it. Hard work. However, the subject matter wasn’t her metier. I shouldn’t have ask her to do the job if it wasn’t because I had to attend another job and the client insisted upon my management. One has to work with some translators long enough before figuring out what strengths or weaknesses there can be with them, in order to find the right translators for certain projects. This may take a lot of patience.

    Anyway, it should not be personal when something goes wrong. As Chinese say, 生意不成,人情在。(Business wasn’t done, the good will remains.) I wouldn’t take offense if a translation done by a certain translator went wrong – but I would quit working with a translator, if 3 projects went sour successively.

    We never know who hates whose translation. Why should we commit suicide! (figuratively meant)


    • It’s not that difficult to fix a translation if it was done by someone else.

      But if somebody tells you to fix your own translation because he does not like it, it may be impossible to do so if you have already put all you have into the effort.


      • Right, it isn’t too difficult to fix a translation done by someone else. The worst case would be retranslating the whole stuff.

        As to fix one’s own translation because the client doesn’t like what was done, it isn’t a matter of retranslation. In such a case, I would ask for a list of terms and phrases that is required by the client. This happens only when the client is an end client and it is usually an employee of the client, because end clients are usually corporate clients. By this way, I nail down the employee for future translations. Or, I ask for another internal reviewer to show the responsible one the absurdity of asking me to fix my translation, risking the loss of the end client.

        This works pretty well. The end clients usually stop asking me to fix my translations and do their own jobs internally or assign me an internal reviewer for better communication. This has happened 5 times in the past 13 years and I am still working with the internal reviewers at 4 end clients’. The one I lost is a minor one. The 4 I’ve retained basically provide me the regular yearly income. Whatever may come inbetween are extras, so that I don’t need to hunt for new clients.

        It takes time to retain end clients for good, but it worths to invest the time for better communication. Once 3 or 4 regular clients are convinced of your communication skills, you are out of the pressure of huntng for jobs, not to say cyberstreetwalking at portals.

        Clients may be discontent with your rate. The best way to solve the problem is to stay cool and let them look for cheaper ones. It happened to me last year. Two clients notified me that I would not be taking care of their newsletters only to come back to me in a few months with their newsletters. Another end client did not accept my rate in 2007 only to come back to me in 2008 and works with me since then and even recommend their agencies to contact me for extra jobs of other clients of the agencies.

        I believe, the easiest way for translators to do right business is to quit clients who don’t like them or their translations, shedding no tears over spilt milk. Instead, be patient for the appearances of other potential clients and work on them. Nobody can please everybody, right? So, why should translators commit suicide just because a client doesn’t like their translations?


      • In my line of work I often have to translate materials that have been already translated. For example when a patent application was first filed in English, and then in German, Russian or Japanese, the lawyers need to know what exactly was filed in the other language version and thus it must be translated. There are usually no real differences between patents filed in English and in a foreign language, with the exception of claims which are often changed to correspond to different legal requirements in different countries.

        And sometime I am asked to translate something while given an existing translation that is frowned upon for some reason by the client, although the existing translation may be excellent.

        All kinds of game are played in the IP field, and translations are sometime used simply as fodder for these games so that various imaginary technological differences could be argued ad infinitum.

        It often makes me feel that my work is useless, but on the other hand I have bills to pay, so I just do what they tell me to do and try not to think about it too much.


  7. Any direct client capable of judging the quality of a translation does not need to book a translator in the first place. Translators to English must tolerate more weak critique than those to other languages, because so many people lay some kind of claim to the English language. But that doesn’t mean that they’re good at it, still less capable of translating to it. Just because a client’s got a touch of the old Dunning-Kruger’s is certainly no reason for taking your own life to even cross your mind.
    One should, however, give a respectful hearing to the jargon preferences of genuine experts, who have read more specialist literature in English in their own domain than has their humble translator. Then look it all up to check they’ve got it right…


  8. “Translators to English must tolerate more weak critique than those to other languages, because so many people lay some kind of claim to the English language.”

    That is probably true.

    I never thought of that.


  9. A very enjoyable post, I can identify with what you say.
    A few years back I had to translate a legal document concerning trusts in the Channel Islands into Italian. My translation came back full of corrections which turned out to be totally unfounded. As the job was for an agency, I returned a comment sheet detailing why I did not accept the corrections and specifying that the reason I specialise in such subject is that I have lived (with a lawyer) and worked in the Channel Islands for 12 years. The agency reported that the client accepted my translation and as they did not get any reaction they suggested that they were probably trying to get a discount…! I must admit I was horrified that someone would be prepared to tarnish the reputation of a professional, trusted translator just to get a few pounds off (ok, maybe I always tend to see the good side in people). On the other hand I was pleased that the agency supported me throughout.
    I absolutely agree on the fact that at times (quite a few actually) the language and grammar of the original text is pretty appalling and that translators have to put in an extra effort just to work out what the meaning could be (there should be an extra charge for that!). These days if this is the case I make sure I point it out when I return the translation….


  10. “A very enjoyable post, I can identify with what you say.”

    Thank you.

    Sometime the injustices of this world are so glaring that I feel compelled to make another bold entry in my blog … and then it does not hurt as much when other translators around the world identify with my pain and cite numerous example of similar injustices.


  11. A couple of years ago, I translated a large brochure for an agency, and when I started the second brochure (same end client), the agency said they would not pay me, because there were too many problems in the first translation. When I asked them to list the problems so I could fix them and also improve the second brochure, they said they would not ask their client such a question. And since their client was not going to pay them, they would be pleased to share that loss with me. I replied saying that no discount was applicable based on merely “the client found your translation horrible”, they had to show me that horrible parts in it.

    Since the second translation was still in its first pages, I returned what I did at that point and invoiced both projects, clearly stating that they were my clients (not their end client) and they’ve never shared their profits with me, so please pay within 30 days, thank you.

    I nearly lost my calm at that time, and really thought this kind of thing only happened to me. What a relief to know I’m not alone! Thank you!


  12. “I nearly lost my calm at that time, and really thought this kind of thing only happened to me. What a relief to know I’m not alone! Thank you!”

    Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens quite often to many translators.


  13. Sometimes one must simply remember not to argue with a fool. To try to convince someone that they are “wrong” about a translation is very often a waste of breath. Then there is the issue of grammar in discussions with persons who have no notion of what tenses are or how they are rendered in translation, etc etc etc,, and that literal just doesn’t cut it: “I am here for three years now,” “There were 20 years of that when he left….”

    I have often found myself wondering how to translate something and finally asked myself the only question that mattered: What in the world are they saying? If one “doctors up” nonsense, it may lead to trouble or amount to selling out. As we say nowadays, “Let it go.”


  14. Och, yeah, I love your conclusion! It just gives me the go to believe in me, what – by the way – is maybe one of the many important things to avoid to commit errors. Thank you for this contribution!


  15. If you don’t believe in yourself …. other people will not believe in you either.

    Nice beach …. wonder where it is.


  16. […] It is bound to happen to all of us at some point, sometime for somewhat legitimate reasons, sometime for completely illegitimate reasons. When somebody or…  […]


  17. “All kinds of games are played…” and “It often makes me feel that my work is useless, but on the other hand I have bills to pay, so I just do what they tell me to do and try not to think about it too much.”

    In fact, we all know that you think quite a bit about it. But your thoughts lead to no desperation. The bills to pay have been making us playing the games people play. If it’s ok for them and it’s ok for us, we keep the “heile Welt” on and on, forever and ever. Ahmen.


  18. Thanks for this post, I liked it IMMENSELY.


  19. […] It is bound to happen to all of us at some point, sometime for somewhat legitimate reasons, sometime for completely illegitimate reasons. When somebody or…  […]


  20. BTW, Steve, I like Guns of Brixton. Nice song. Clear message. I got it.


  21. […] patent agents transcribe it as “anaguro”. As I already mentioned in a post called Don’t Commit Suicide If A Customer Hates Your Translation, when I searched for “anaguro” (アナグロ) instead of “anarogu” (アナログ) […]


  22. “アナグロ” sounds like a mash up of アナル (anal) and グロ (grotesque). I’m not sure I want to be anywhere near a patent involving アナグロ.


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