Posted by: patenttranslator | June 29, 2015

The Life of Every Translator Is Full of Unexpected Challenges

Thirty years ago, when I was still working as an employee (visitor services representative) of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, two years before I started my own translation business, an elderly German lady who worked as a part-time receptionist/multilingual problem solver for a translation agency called me and asked me whether I could come to their office to take a look at a document for translation. It was only a couple of blocks from where I worked on Market Street, so I went there on my lunch break.

At first I thought that the handwritten letters she showed me were in German because they were written in a cursive script that I could not read at all. But the letters were written in Czech, around 1880, in a neat but at first completely incomprehensible cursive style that was taught at that time to pupils in German and Czech schools.

The part-time receptionist/multilingual problem solver, and she was really good at solving problems, copied for me a page from an old German book that listed alphabet letters in different writing styles in German in the nineteenth century along with modern equivalents of these alphabet letters. Armed with that page, I was able to eventually start translating those letters. It was a slow and painful process, it felt sort of like when I started learning Japanese, first katakana, followed by hiragana. Fortunately, there were no Chinese characters in handwritten German or Czech around 1880.

I should have charged more for all this work, but I felt that I was doing something important – helping a family to finally find out what happened when their grand-grand-parents emigrated more than a century ago to America.

I was able to translate those letters only because the sentences were short and simple. How long it took to get from Bohemia to Hamburg, how many weeks it took to cross the ocean, what was the first job that the new immigrants were able to find in New York, who died, who was born, that kind of thing. You don’t need long sentences for things like that. It was not at all like a blog. People talked in short sentences back then, possibly because blogs would not make their appearance for about another hundred and twenty years.

Thirty years later, last week to be specific, I was working on another highly specialized translation, several old Japanese utility models that I was translating to English. A utility model is a technical innovation that may be significant, although it is not quite on the level of a patent. Because utility models may be cited as prior art (existing technology) during patent examination, they sometime need to be translated for prior art research before a new patent is filed to make sure that an application for a patent does not claim features that have been claimed already by other inventors.

These Japanese utility models, filed between early seventies and early eighties of the last century, were almost as hard to read as the correspondence of the immigrants from 1880. The legibility was poor because these applications were often simply faxed to Japan Patent Office before the Internet enabled filing by e-mail.

Although the sentences were short, the Japanese writing was so bad that the text only made sense to me if I kept going back and forth between the description in Japanese and the attached drawings. Patents are almost always filed by a patent agent, called benrishi in Japan, but authors of utility models sometime don’t bother hiring a patent agent and write the applications by themselves to save money.

When the terminology is several decades old, it is often difficult to find the equivalent English terms on the Internet. And even when I do find something that looks good to me in 2015, how can I know whether this English term is the same one that would make sense in 1975?

Internet is not much help when you have to deal with poorly legible originals (so that for example, in a second generation fax it would be possible to tell the number 3 from the number 9), really bad writing, and obsolete terminology.

One can look at problems like this as a major, unnecessary hassle that is best to be avoided. But I prefer to think of them as challenges that are a part of my job, as well as an important part of the fun. How can I learn anything new without new challenges?

I don’t know yet what kind of highly specialized or generic translations will this week bring.

Maybe it will be a pretty simple, highly legible and pretty clear Japanese or German patent that I can have first translated with machine translation to save time on terminology research.

Or it could be personal documents, a court decree, or a contract in one of the languages that I translate.

Although I specialize in patents, I finished my last patent translation last Friday and my next translation may have nothing to do with patents or technical translation.

Some people believe that strict specialization is the answer to the problems that a generalist must be facing. But I believe that an important part of the appeal of the life of a translator, including this mad patent translator, is that is full of unexpected challenges.

I can say no to a challenge that I don’t particularly enjoy, or I can rise to the challenge. But I usually say yes because I do enjoy a good challenge, and I can generally always use the money.


  1. I feel your pain with regards to “ancient” patents, Steve. As you say, it can be very difficult to find terminology from half a century ago, because it’s too obsolete to be found online. I used to have a lovely set of multilingual technical dictionaries dating from the beginning of the last century, and they were occasionally useful (I’ve had the odd patent from the 19th century as prior art to translate), but my rule of thumb is to try and avoid throwing old dictionaries away, just in case. Trouble is, they do take up so much space for something I rarely use …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Allison:

    I have several bookcases full of dictionaries in my large office, plus more bookcases lined up along the walls in the hallway. I hate to think what I will need to do if, or rather when, I move … probably get rid of some of the old dictionaries, although it will break my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Does this not make you feel like you are specializing in something very rare and specific?
    I often say and a number of agencies or translation companies recognize (some may be bona fide after all), that the translations that arrive to my desk are relevant of the specialty “declined by other translators”.

    Although there are many colleagues around hungry for a job and eager to invoice on a subject they do not fully master, the category “nobody accepted this yet” is sometimes rewarding and rather often fun: I guess you do not remember the previous job nor the next, but these ones made a blog post and some memories.
    Having fun at work is more and more a luxury these days, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts.


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