Posted by: patenttranslator | May 9, 2016

An Old Dog Can Sometimes Still Learn New Tricks … But He’d Better Know His Limitations

Every time a plane is landing at an airport, chimes and beeps indicating the availability of internet  service greet passengers turning on their cell phones the moment the wheels hit the runway, announcing to tired travelers that the long wait is over.

Most people love the convenience of almost miraculous technology. Only a few years ago, the only help that a traveler could expect at an airport was the smiling face of a friend or relative waiting at the exit.

We used to have to stop our car to ask for directions when we got lost in an unfamiliar place, a major inconvenience especially for men, because unlike most women, most men absolutely hate asking for directions. Must be something to do with testosterone. Fortunately, all we have to do now is listen to the authoritative voice coming out of our smart phones ordering us which way to go.

Men can live with that, as long as they don’t have to demean themselves by asking for help.

There is one group of people of both genders, though, that often refuses to accept modern conveniences, or even to acknowledge that these are indeed nifty inventions, because they perceive them as too damn complicated.

They simply refuse to learn anything new, and that’s that.

I am talking about people approximately my age or older who are politely called senior citizens. Not all of them, of course, but still, many refuse to use new technology. A few will greedily grab and turn on their cell phones to check for messages and e-mails just like everybody else when the plane lands, but many just grab their bag from the overhead bin and get ready to leave their seats.

Some do use cell phones, especially the simpler type, but mostly just for calling.

It is not really the number of years that we have lived on this earth that defines our age. Regardless of our age, we are old when we refuse to learn new things, especially when we could really put those new things to good use in our lives.

The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks ” (in Japanese they say “you can’t bend an old tree”), which must be centuries old, is as true now as ever.

But younger people sometimes also stubbornly refuse to learn something new, without realizing that the payoff for learning new things really is worth the trouble.

I myself have certainly done my share of stubbornly refusing to learn new things. When I started translating in the 1980s of the last century (man, I’m so old!), I decided that I would be translating only Japanese. After all, I majored in it and I still love the challenge of this incredibly complicated but beautiful language. Plus, I figured I could get better rates than if I were translating Czech or Russian, for example.

So for the first five years or so, I was translating basically only Japanese. But then a client who was sending me only Japanese up until that point, a small patent law firm in San Francisco that no longer exists, sent me a patent in German for translation. I still remember what it was about: it was a description of geometrical patterns on the “stone” of an ornamental ring worn around the finger that you could fiddle with to create numerous combinations of the elements of the pattern.

I read the description and understood immediately how the design worked. But I did not know how to say it in English because my brain worked at that point kind of like a one-way street: from Japanese to English only. It took me a while to translate that patent. Although it was fairly short, I had to look up a lot of words while I was translating it.

When the customer then thanked me in an e-mail for my “excellent translation”, it dawned on me that it would be really stupid to keep turning down German patents just because I prefer Japanese. So I also started to translate patents from German, while charging the same for German as Japanese, although I could literally feel the pain in my brain as I was forcing it to start building permanent connections between technical terms not only from Japanese to English, but also from German to English.

In Japanese, I have the characters to guide me through the minefield of technical terms.

In German, a word like “Ansatz” can mean, according to an old technical dictionary that I almost never use anymore (“Ernst – Wörterbuch der Industriellen Technik“), depending on the context:”projection, shoulder, catch, driver, dog, strip, neck, nose, heel, lug, piece, stud, tappet  (which, in case you didn’t know it, is a projection that imparts a linear motion to some other component within a mechanism), lengthening piece, incrustation, deposit, mix, batch …  although GoogleTranslate falsely claims that it usually means 1. approach, 2. beginning, 3. attempt. (Never trust machine pseudo-translations!)

So many words in German can be like that. Lengthening piece was what I was looking for, of course.

What the German language needs is another Rechtschreibreform (German orthography reform) that would include the use of Japanese characters to make the language less impenetrable, which, incidentally, is a word that is almost always used only about German when applied to a language, and for good reason.

Then, little by little I started adding French patents because that was another language that I had been studying for many years. Fortunately, fate was kind to me because the first patents for translation ended up being really simple.

But then I got cocky – somebody asked me if I could translate a Polish patent about biotechnology … and I said yes. I should have at least asked to see it first. But I didn’t.

This was in 1994 when there was basically no internet yet and fax was a technological miracle, although some people were already using e-mail. So I could not have used the internet for research as I would now, and although I have several Polish-English dictionaries, the terms that I needed were not there.

The result was a disaster. Fortunately, I was able to find a bilingual Polish patent agent who understood the field and who translated the patent very well.

“A man’s got to know his limitations” was the way Clint Eastwood put it in the movie Dirty Harry in his role as inspector Callahan. And if you don’t know your limitations, you are definitely going to find out one day what they are, probably the hard way, and it will hurt.

But one can look at it as a learning experience, right? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that, right? But is that really true? Maybe sometimes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and sometimes it makes you weaker, perhaps even too weak to go on living.

So that is the paradox and the daily dilemma of our lives: we have to keep learning new tricks, or admit that at this point we are too old to learn.

But at the same time, we have to know our limitations, and if we get too cocky and misjudge them, it is going to hurt.


  1. Instead of “Rechtschreibung Reform” I guess the correct German term is “Rechtschreibreform”.
    No machine translation, native speaker


  2. Being a native speaker, you must be right, I guess – I am going to fix it.

    Vielen Dank.


  3. I agree with you that it is important to keep learning new tricks that can be useful in our lives (or admit that we are too old for that), but knowing our limitations.
    At the same time, I do not have to adopt all available technology.

    Getting back to your example of asking directions: one can see it as a technological advance not to have to ask for directions any longer. But looking at smartphone zombies walking in my home town, I sometimes find it’s a pity: 10 years ago, some tourists asking for directions ended as guests in our house, because they dare to talk with us in the street and we sympathized (we are still in contact today).
    I mostly let my tablet in my pocket when I walk in a foreign town.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. New technology connects us to the world, while at the same time it also isolates us from our neighbors and turns us into walking zombies.

    I love the term!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hi. The thing is – sometimes we just know our limitations, as with your story, when we get our hands on the job. And it sometimes is something slightly scary but, at the end, we learn a lot and have that nice feeling of overcoming something we didn’t know we could overcome. It is tricky.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interessant zu lesen, dass es so anstrengend ist, wenn man anfängt, in einer neuen Sprachkombination zu übersetzen. Ich hatte von Anfang an zwei Ausgangssprachen (und halte es für unwahrscheinlich, dass irgendwann eine weitere dazukommt), daher habe ich die Situation nie erlebt.


    • Thanks for your comment Fiametta.

      Not too unwahrscheinlich, I think.

      I know a lot of of people who translate more than 2 languages.


      • Ich kenne natürlich auch Leute mit mehr als zwei Ausgangssprachen.
        Aber welche Sprache sollte bei mir noch (zu Französisch und Italienisch) hinzukommen? Englisch kann ich zwar ganz gut lesen, beherrsche es aber viel weniger als die meisten gebildeten Menschen hier in Deutschland; ich kann es ja nicht einmal schreiben. Dann wäre da noch Polnisch, aber das ist für mich nur ein Hobby und mein Niveau ist auch nach zehn Jahren noch recht niedrig.
        In Latein und Altfranzösisch bin ich gut oder war es einmal, aber da ist die Nachfrage nicht sonderlich stark …


  7. Timely post . I am thankful for the information . Does someone know if my business might find a sample CA SI-200 C copy to fill in ?


  8. If I had your language combination and wanted to add another language, I would go for Portuguese. There are not that many Portuguese translators compared to Spanish, and it is a fascinating language spoken in quite a few countries.

    (But I’m not telling you that you should do that, of course, unless you get bored).


    • Ich nehme an, das war an mich gerichtet?
      Dass mir einmal so langweilig sein wird, dass ich noch einmal mit einer Sprache ganz von vorn anfange (und mich so anstrenge, dass ich irgendwann aus ihr übersetzen kann), glaube ich kaum, aber wissen kann man es natürlich nicht.

      Liked by 1 person

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