Posted by: patenttranslator | June 9, 2013

The Concept of a Translator as a Data Input Clerk/Omniscient Miracle Worker Is Not Very Healthy

Contrary to popular belief, the life of a translator is not exactly a bed of roses and the remuneration for working until exhaustion to meet a tight deadline is usually not exactly a king’s ransom either, whether we are talking about highly specialized translators, or jack-of-all-trades translators who are often referred to somewhat deprecatingly as “generalists”.

In some respects it is much easier to translate highly specialized texts such as patents than other types of materials, for instance newspaper articles about …. well, anything. It may seem that translating a newspaper article should not be a difficult undertaking. It’s just a newspaper article, for God’s sake!

But it certainly can be quite difficult to translate even a seemingly simple text. If you don’t know anything about the subject of an article, you are likely to mistranslate something. Especially when translating from a language that is as ambiguous (compared to English) as Japanese, or even a much more straightforward language like French, German or Russian, you must  first find out everything you can about the subject of the article.

How much are translators paid for the time that they must first spend researching the subject of  their translation? Nothing, of course! They are normally only paid based on the number of translated words or “normative pages” as it is simply assumed that they are omniscient, i.e. that they know everything about everything, right away and in advance.

According to one part of this concept, translators are operators who, similarly to file input clerks, manually replace words in one language by words in another language. And although this is a relatively simple operation which is already being done by machines using software, human translators seem to be still for the time being slightly better at replacing words in this manner, so they probably deserve to be paid something for this work, although obviously not that much.

However, instead of a second or two, some “words” may require an obscenely huge amount of effort to locate their correct equivalent in another language.  For instance, let’s say that a word or personal name is incorrectly transcribed into another alphabet, for instance into Japanese or Russian. When this happens, and it happens all the time in Japanese patents, a search engine is completely useless.

What is the poor translator supposed to do in such a case? Who cares? The flip side of the concept is that the data input clerks called translators are at the same time expected to be omniscient miracle workers who must be able to figure out the correct answer each and every time within a split second for the equivalent of a few cents per word.

But that is not how things work. In spite of more than a quarter century of an almost daily struggle to find the correct terminology for every patent application that I am translating, I spend a lot of time researching the terminology for most of my translations.

Patent translators from languages such as Japanese, German and French are in  a way more fortunate than some of their colleagues because most current patent applications filed in these languages are already provided with a brief English summary. But these English summaries at the same time also complicate the situation because the people who wrote them in some cases did not do a very good job (possibly because they did not want to spend much time researching the terminology in both languages as they are paid by the word).

When an English summary of a German patent that I am translating says that “ein Durchbrennbereich” is a “blow region”, and “ein Auslösebereich” is a “tripping region”, should I stick to the terms used in this summary, although they don’t seem to be used in the same context in other patents written in English, or should I use “a burn-through region” and a “triggering region” instead? I think that I should do so because the words make much more sense to me in English, but what if the lawyers on the other side of Atlantic Ocean, or Pacific Ocean for that matter, have been discussing these particular technical issues based on the translation available to them from the English abstract that I don’t like?

And of course, English summaries of Japanese patents written by Japanese speakers whose command of English are usually much worse than those of translators whose native language is German or French. But I should probably still try to stick to the English terms provided  in the summaries, except when I think that they are just too ridiculous, because the English summaries may already be a part of conversation among patent lawyers in different countries talking to each other across geographical and linguistic barriers.

Another advantage of patent translators is that they can often use machine translations that are now available for many current patent applications. But this advantage is again a double-edged sword. Although these machine translations are usually much worse that even the worst human translations, the English terms used in them are now also a part of the conversation among people who can’t read the original language and who may ask me why is it that I dared to use a different term in my translation.

The thing is, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, or even a correct translation in many cases, depending on the definition of the word “correct”. It is true that something will be always left out in a translation, and some things will be added.

The concept of a translator as an omniscient miracle worker who should have been able to anticipate every question even before it is asked is a popular misconception.

It is very easy to discredit a translation, any translation, if that is what you set out to do. I am no expert on the Bible, but I do know that there are dozens of translations of the Bible into English alone.

Some of these translation must be closer to the original meaning of texts that were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, and some of them probably have some or many mistranslations in them. And although many people may have different opinions one way or the other, nobody really knows for sure which is which, just like I cannot be absolutely certain that “burn-through region” is more accurate than “blow region”, and “triggering region”  is better than “tripping region”.


  1. I think you are preaching to the choir! Even so, I recently heard (on TV5Monde) the “French” term “fooding,” which, based on what I was viewing, I concluded meant a “food fair” for (the ever-current) California’s foodies. I do not know why the -ing came to be used, possibly because of that other wonderful “French” word “shampooing,” which any fool would know means “shampoo.” Since the latter has now been expanded to “shampooineur/euse” (a hairdresser in training), shall we now have “foodingeur/euse,” and would the latter be an attendee of a food festival, all organic, of course, or a vendor?


  2. Steve, since you have led a sheltered existence free from the ravages of translation agency employment 😉 you may be interested to learn about the process by which the English-language summaries/abstracts of foreign-language patents appearing on the WIPO website are translated. The WIPO sends these summaries to the translation agency in large batches, hundreds at a time. The batches are divided according to language pair, but not according to subject matter, so the translator receives a batch of, say 30-50 summaries, each one related to a different technical field. Thus, the terminology research restarts anew with each and every paragraph translated. Needless to say, no context — i.e., no specification, claims or drawings — is provided for clarification, so the translator is pretty much flailing around in the dark. The going rate for this misery (at least the last time I was offered one of these jobs to turn down) is TEN DOLLARS per 100-200 word abstract, so the translator can ill afford to do much more than accept the first dictionary entry he finds for each technical term.

    Thus, the answer to your question “Should I stick to the terms used in this summary?” is, most emphatically, NO.


    • Actually, the process by which WIPO English abstracts are translated depends on the agency. One in Japan pays about 40 dollars per abstract, provides the spec/claims/drawings, and assigns the abstracts according to specific fields which the translator initially selects.


      • But how is it possible that one translator gets a lousy 10 bucks and another one 40 dollars for the same work?

        Is the customer eventually going to catch on and replace the agency that provides lousy translation for lousy pay by another supplier?


  3. […] Contrary to popular belief, the life of a translator is not exactly a bed of roses and the remuneration for working until exhaustion to meet a tight deadline is usually not exactly a king's ransom …  […]


  4. @parisblues

    I see.

    Well, as long as WIPO made sure that the agency is ISO 9001-certified and adheres to a rigorous quality control system consisting of 5 stages….. there is no problem, regardless of what malicious detractors like you or me may be saying on blogs and social media.


    • LOL, Steve. If the translator is getting $10 an abstract, I can only imagine what the final proofreader would get.

      Since the titles of WIPO applications are farmed out in batches along with the abstracts, there can sometimes be significant errors in the published title of an application — in which case I include a note for the client saying what the translation of the title would be “in a perfect world,” so they can decide whether or not the error is significant enough to justify the filing of a title change.


      • The English abstracts on the JPO websites are generally much worse than translations from German or French because these are translations by native Japanese speakers whose English is invariably quite limited.

        The abstracts are helpful to me because I understand Japanese, but I feel sorry for my customers who must try to figure them out without being able to read Japanese.

        I try to use the same title of the invention as much as possible in my translation, but sometime even the title is so ridiculous that I have to change it.


  5. Hi Steve!
    I played the Brenda Lee song for my partner last night and she recognised it immediately because she knew the Czech version :). So she played it for me and if you’d like to watch it here’s the link:

    There’s more to the story..
    This lady-singer is a returning exile, having fallen-foul of the Communist authorities as a radical young girl. Several of her youthful songs are also on you tube and they’re great. Her real name is Yvonne Přenosilová but even if you can’t read the diacritics you can also find her on youtube by typing in .
    I hope that you have the time to enjoy!
    All Best, Michal


  6. (Missing bit above after “typing in !!)
    yvonne prenosilova


  7. Hi Michal:

    Yes, I know the Czech version (Ron slzy) with Yvonne Prenosilova too. Very nice.

    An interesting fact: when Brenda Lee heard the Czech song “Tenkrat” (sung by Jiri Vasicek), she liked it so much that she recorded it with English lyrics and it became another of her hits in the sixties called “Truly, truly, true”.


    • Nice one too! The diminutive Brenda Lee (4’9″) known as “Little Miss Dynamite” and was a real biggie in the 60’s. Her ranking was right up there Elvis, The Beatles, Ray Charles and Connie Francis. (I must fess up that though I do remember her I cribbed these details from Wikipedia).


  8. Thank you parisblues for the tip on “fooding.” Goodness! Le Fooding, ever so French. The Académie must be doing whatever it does when language simply ignores it….


    • BTW, next time you need a restaurant tip for Paris (or anywhere else in France), check out

      The site allows you to search for a restaurant by neighborhood, type of cuisine, price, ambience etc.


  9. Translating is indeed very difficult! I’m a college student who is still studying translation and sometimes sentences give me headaches 😉


  10. […] Contrary to popular belief, the life of a translator is not exactly a bed of roses and the remuneration for working until exhaustion to meet a tight deadline is usually not exactly a king’s ransom either, whether we are talking about highly…  […]


  11. 靴 激安 iphone スピーカー


  12. […] The Concept of a Translator as a Data Input Clerk/Omniscient Miracle Worker Is Not Very Healthy Rosetta Stone Buys Up Online Language Learning Community Livemocha For $8.5M In Cash Introduction to Translation class, starts 6/25 (online & available to students round the world) Daily Tip for Growing Your Language Business: Create an honest and trustworthy image When Millimeters Matter – Easy, Preventative Measures For Better Medical Translations Some tips on what every new freelance translator must do in order to succeed Interview with Tess Whitty, English-Swedish IT and Marketing Translator This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: dialect maps, geek vs nerd, cronuts Avoiding translation blindness – remember to see the wood AND the trees KFC turned PFK: Translation AND Localization are Equally Important Top 10 misconceptions about translation and the translation profession Differences between literature translations for children and for adults Why Referring to the Source File Is Important for Translation Quality Book review: Netymology: From Apps to Zombies, by Tom Chatfield The Value of Personal Public Relations for Your Translation Services Connect with confidence: 5 networking tips for language translators Are you a CAT person? Even translators have communication issues Anthropology And Translation – Interview with Lineimar Martin Didn’t make it to the ITI conference? Check out these snapshots Book – Legal English (US) for international practitioners On Payment Terms, Hatred and Other Mysteries of Life Upcoming presentations on translation and localization SDL certification: is it so difficult to get without help? Understanding fuzzy term matching in memoQ 2013 More resources for technical and scientific translators Terminology Issues Unique to Medical Translation What differentiates a brand from a luxury brand? Context, Translation Quality, and Productivity How To Earn More As A Freelance Translator Translator credit for agencies/intermediaries Fee wizardry: a free online conversion tool Becoming a Qualified Member of the ITI Transcreation: bringing ad content to life Tips for Working with Legal Interpreters A couple of freelance tips for translators DipTrans and MITI exams: side by side À la recherche d’un stage de traduction? Book Review: Thoughts on Translation What do your clients think about you? Advice for Beginners: Specialization Localization File Format Overview 5 good reasons not to study Italian Where to go when lost for words How to Translate Abbreviations Keep calm and keep translating The Best Marketing for LSPs Getting your quotes accepted When to Outsource (Comic) Tips for dating a translator Translation In The Sun Getting Your Back Up Circulating Translation Language comedy (6) Glueing your files… memoQfest 2013 […]


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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: