Posted by: patenttranslator | March 8, 2013

How Often Do You Scream At Your Translation?

In one cartoon of Mox The Engineer-Translator, Mox, who is watching a movie with his girlfriend Lena, suddenly starts loudly protesting that the subtitles do not correspond to the dialogue in a foreign language. At the end, they are both thrown out of the movie theater and Lena’s bubble above her pony-tailed head says:”Mental note to myself: Never go to movies with a translator!”.

I know why Mox could not stay silent. To be silent in the face of injustice is to be an accomplice to evil. And to be silent in the face of a mistranslation when you are a translator is to deny your true identity, just like Peter denied Jesus, three times before a rooster crowed, out of fear of what would happen to him.

There is a scene in the movie Johnny English in which Rowan Atkinson, who is  trying to impress Natalie Imbruglia by his skillful handling of chopsticks at a sushi restaurant, (“I practically live off these things” he says to her, while wondering how to separate wooden chopsticks that seem to be stuck together), utters a Japanese sentence with perfect pronunciation, which is translated in the subtitles as “Your friend’s daughter has 3 bottoms”.

But he did not say that!!! He actually said in Japanese “Your friend’s daughter has a small penis”. (Anata no tomodachi no musume wa chiisana o-chinchi wo motte iru).

I swear, that’s what said! I think that it is very funny both in Japanese and in English (it is clearly an imaginary daughter of an imaginary friend), while a daughter with three bottoms is not very funny, imaginary or otherwise, because it does not really mean anything.

Which idiot decided to mistranslate the sentence like this?, I wonder. Fortunately, I was watching the movie on my TV at home. Had I been in a movie theater, I would probably have done what Mox did in the cartoon, and I would then meet the same fate as Mox.

I don’t scream at the screen in movie theaters. I do sometime scream at my TV, but usually it has nothing to do with foreign languages. I do it sometime when a well paid “journalist” is blithely telling lies, just before I turn the TV off.

I also sometime scream and yell four letter words at the text that I am translating. I know it’s useless, but it seems to help a little bit. I have a number of very good reasons to scream at the stupid pieces of paper that I have to translate sometime.

1. The documents are often almost illegible, especially when these are old patents written in Japanese, because back in the day, Japan Patent Office accepted patent applications by fax. This week I was translating a  utility model from Japanese and I had to guess so many characters when I only saw a filled-in outline of complicated Japanese characters, it was like sitting in Plato’s cave. Instead of being able to see the delicate and bold shapes and strokes of the character, I only see shadows projected on the cave’s walls.

2. The patent agents who write these patent applications often seem to be severely undereducated, except perhaps for the narrow technical field in which they specialize. They sometime use the wrong characters because they are pronounced the same way in Japanese, and I then have to spend a long time searching on the Internet in vain for compounds which contain this character to make sure that this is indeed a typo and not a new word that I don’t know.

I will use the example of the translation of the word “analog” into Japanese to give you an idea of how bad the writing of these people can be. Like many other technical terms, the word “analog” is generally not translated into Japanese, it is simply transcribed to fit the Japanese phonetic system as “anarogu”. However, some Japanese 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) 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.

3. These people sometime forget to include the verb,. Try to translate a whole paragraph  that is missing the verb! Even German patent agents sometime do that, although not as often as the Japanese ones. The problem is, the verb is always at the end in both Japanese and in German …. and sometime they simply forget.

4. The most helpful thing in every patent applications are the figures or drawings at the end because they show the actual parts of the machines described in the text. It is particularly helpful in Japanese patents because there is, generally speaking, no singular and no plural in Japanese. So when I translate text that says 車輪 (sharin), I have no idea whether this means “wheel” or “wheels” until I see the figures. But Japanese patent agents often don’t identify which figure they mean, and I then have to look at 17 figures if I want to find out whether a certain word is in singular or plural.

Worse, they often say things like “wheel(s) 13 shown in Figure 5” …. but there is no part labeled “15” in Figure 5! It might be in Figure 17, or it might not be there at all.

5. I think that many Japanese patent agents must be evil people. And like Lady Gaga, they were born that way, because their first name consists of 2 or 3 Japanese characters that are often simply unidentifiable! (Japanese name can be very difficult to figure out as there are many ways to pronounce characters in names).

I realize that most of them had no choice about the characters because their names were given to them by their parents.

But why would parents name their children using unidentifiable characters, unless the parents themselves were evil as well and therefore wanted to impart as much of their evil nature to their offspring too, starting with the name?

I realize that screaming at a piece of paper will not change anything.

But it I think that it does help me on a subliminal level, and the screaming usually does not take me nearly as long as it took me to write this post.


  1. “Back in the day, [the] Japan Patent Office accepted patent applications by fax”. That I’m not sure of, but I do know (because I’ve translated a few) that back in the day the JPO accepted handwritten applications. What was interesting, as they gradually made the switch to electronic filing, was the time – pre-laser printer era – that they would accept typewritten applications but not wordprocessed ones because the wordprocessor and computer printers were all dot-matrix (24-pin or so) and could not produce clear enough kanji. There are advantages to an alphabetic language!


    • I know, the handwritten ones are more memorable.

      I remember that one handwritten patent that I translated was about a stick with a gizmo on it for picking up dog feces and putting in in an attached bag so that all you had to do then was flush it down the toilet.

      Another one was about different shoe sole designs and patterns, most of which were inspired by sushi, kamaboko and other types of seafood.

      It was a challenge to translate the names of the designs and patterns.


  2. […] In one cartoon of Mox The Engineer-Translator, Mox, who is watching a movie with his girlfriend Lena, suddenly starts loudly protesting that the subtitles…  […]


  3. I have been laughing all the way down reading this post of yours. This is the most funny one I read at yours.

    1. No, you are not sitting in Plato’s cave. You are chained facing the wall in the cave in that case when you are translating a job with which you’ve already obliged yourself. You scream, for sure.

    2. You won’t just scream at the job, but cry over it when you do it from Chinese, believe me. We call such documents 天書 (Tianshu, Heaven’s Scripts).

    3. Oh, yes, that happens to Japanese and Germans. But try Chinese. Japanese and Germans might forget their verbs at the end. However, I wonder that German natives would forget their verbs at the end. A non-native like me forgets 40% of the time when the sentences are too long or as long as what Emanuel Kant usually wrote. But we just don’t put verbs in quite a few sentences in Chinese.

    4. Aha, that kind of misplacement happens quite often with patents.

    5. No, no, Japanese are nice people. They have just another way to be nice. Remember Admiral Yamamoto during the World War II? His family name is a piece of cake, because most Japanese family names are fixed with their pronunciations. But his given name was 五十六 (56) which is often mispronounced by non-natives. The number 56 should be easy to pronounce, but Admiral Yamamoto’s given name indicated the age of his father when he was born and thus have to be pronounced differently. Well, bad luck for non-natives.

    All in all, that what makes us scream, curse or cry when we translate is why cleints pay us decent rates, isn’t it? In this sense, we scream for a few minutes and have the stuffs for a funny blog posts or a hilarious cartoon.



  4. huh…


  5. I translate from English, Italian, Norwegian and Danish to Swedish and my primary specialty is IT. I often end up screaming at unclear instructions and inconsistent glossaries and TMs. Of course, unclear and incorrect source texts are an issue in this area as well. A tough job for little money, but oh so interesting (occasionally) 😉


  6. I don’t scream, I just (figuratively) pull my hair out. If I did this for real, I would be bald by now, :). Evil (translations) triumph,when good (translators) do nothing…. – to borrow another famous phrase. One of my pet peeves, however, is when native English-speaking authors quote, in italics, phrases in Spanish in their books, which are completely wrong and unidiomatic. Not just any author, quite renowned ones. With all the money they make out of their books, reprints and what have you, why, oh why, don’t they take the trouble to consult a native linguist of the language they are quoting? I shudder to think what they are palming off on us when they quote Japanese or Chinese, for there I am completely clueless….


  7. “I shudder to think what they are palming off on us when they quote Japanese or Chinese, for there I am completely clueless….”

    No, you are not, not anymore.

    Now you have me for Japanese (and a few other languages) and Wenjer Leuschel for Chinese (and a few other languages)!

    Our main mission on this earth is to identify every single instance of mistranslation we come across in our respective languages and put to shame the people who unleashed such unspeakable evil on unsuspecting public!


    • “Now you have me for Japanese (and a few other languages) and Wenjer Leuschel for Chinese (and a few other languages)!”

      Don’t think that this hadn’t already occurred to me… Expect, both of you, Steve and Wenjer, to be pestered in the future whenever I come across an instance of this 🙂


  8. […] In one cartoon of Mox The Engineer-Translator, Mox, who is watching a movie with his girlfriend Lena, suddenly starts loudly protesting that the subtitles…  […]


  9. […] To Get Specialized in the Translation Industry How British Travelers Deal with Language Barriers How Often Do You Scream At Your Translation? False Friends and Other Unwanted Companions 24 Canadianisms way more interesting than […]


  10. heeeey
    I’ve been enjoying your writing AND your musical taste
    after hearing this piece and that one by Lana del Rey, I thought you might enjoy this:
    and they have some freely downloadable music here:
    (I only liked les chrysanthemes and live @ pavillion, though)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: