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.