Our clients and even many translation agencies are often unable to determine whether the job expected from a translator will be relatively easy, or quite difficult, because the original text is in a foreign language.
For example, the general assumption in the field of patent translation is that a patent describing medical technology would be more difficult than for example a patent describing a relatively simple mechanical engineering design.
But the opposite can be often true for a number of reasons. A long patent describing a new heart surgery technique will be almost certainly very difficult to translate because the specialized terminology used for heart anatomy is very complicated for anybody who is not a heart surgeon.
And I don’t know of any heart surgeon who translates patents for a living, probably because they can make more money cutting up hearts and then sewing them back together.
But a medical patent describing for instance diagnostic radiology techniques combined with information storage technology, which has been a very busy patent translation field for me for quite a few years, can be translated quite easily even by a translator who has some experience with patents and basic terms relating to electronics and information processing. There are also many patents describing medical devices, such as syringes or catheters, that are quite simple to translate as long as you have some experience in this field.
On the other hand, many patents about a seemingly simple mechanical design can be devilishly difficult to translate. One reason for this is that patent agents who specialize in mechanical engineering often also specialize in writing nearly incomprehensible texts. It’s a special talent they have. In my case, the incomprehensible texts are usually in Japanese or German.
Once I translated two patent applications for the same client, one from German and one from Japanese. The patent application was originally written in German and then it was filed in Japan in Japanese. As far as I know, it was never filed in English (the German documents was a utility model, the Japanese one was an unexamined patent application, but I could not find an English translation of either of them on the Internet).
I started with the translation from German. It was slow going and I had to take frequent breaks because trying to figure out weird, long German sentences is an exhausting task.
The next day I tackled the Japanese patent. For some reason, the person who translated the German text into Japanese backed up his Japanese terms with the original German terms in parentheses after the Japanese terms. I can understand if a translator does something like this once or maybe even twice in case of an unusual and contestable Japanese term. But he did it about a dozen times in a patent application that had only about 2,500 words in my translation.
Why do it, unless you are unsure about the technical terms that you use in your own translation? However, this translator somehow managed to convey the exact impression of the fuzzily connected components in long, weird German sentences into equally long and fuzzily connected Japanese sentences. Except that the sentences did not really look too weird in Japanese because if a Japanese sentence is slightly more comprehensible than a system of smoke signals, it has a sound grammatical structure and makes perfect sense in Japanese.
When I was comparing the Japanese translation to the German original, I saw that in my opinion, at least in one case he mistranslated a German term. Fortunately, I knew what he must have meant because the debatable (anfechtbar, streitig) Japanese term was again backed up by a German word in parentheses. I am using his technique for backing up key English terms with German words here to give you a taste of what the translation read like to me.
I was really curious whether I would be able to better understand one patent claim that made no sense to me in German from the Japanese translation.
I did not understand it in Japanese either, probably because it was translated by a master of his trade, because only a really good translator can translate a nearly incomprehensible sentence in one language equally incomprehensibly into another language.
So I took a look at my English translation and translated it the way I thought the sentence did make sense. Then I looked at the Japanese text, then the German text, then my English translation of the German text again ….. and I was done for the day.
I decided that maybe the claim would make more sense to me next day when I proofread both translations after I sleep on it.
To my surprise, it did make sense, not because the sentence was written in an understandable language (it was not), but because I knew what it simply had to mean as I understood the design at that point quite well.