Posted by: patenttranslator | July 2, 2017

If You Like Mysteries, You Are Probably Patent Translator Material and You Don’t Even Know It

My obsession with mystery novels started when I was 16.

My sister had a friend, a sweet, chubby girl named Marcela, whose mother was addicted to mystery novels. Addictions were generally much more benign half a century ago than they are now in our modern, addiction-riddled society, especially in the little backwater town where I lived, behind the Iron Curtain.

Although Marcela and her mother, (there was no father, I was told), lived in an apartment less than 100 meters from our place on the same town square dominated by a big plague column surrounded by a fountain in the middle of the little medieval town of Český Krumlov in Southern Bohemia, I was too shy to visit them despite my sister’s frequent exhortations. (For those who don’t know, plague columns were built in Middle Ages in many towns in Central Europe to thank God for ending plague epidemic.)

Come to think of it, I was probably too scared to be alone in an apartment with three women for an extended period of time. It sounds a little intimidating even now.

So anyway, when Marcela’s mother, who I never met, found out from my sister that I liked to read, she started sending me books from her extensive collection of mystery novels. Every time my sister returned after a visit to Marcela’s place, she would bring new books for me to read and return the ones I had finished reading.

Marcela’s mother had a subscription to something called “Edice Smaragd (The Emerald Edition), a series of famous mystery novels, all of which were printed on special emerald-green paper – a revolutionary concept I found fascinating. The green color itself was the promise of an interesting mystery to be solved at the end of every book, a promise that, unlike most other promises, was never broken.

The special edition included some books by Czech writers. I remember for example “Smutek poručíka Borůvky (The Sadness of Lieutenant Borůvka) by Josef Škvorecký, but most of the books were translations from other languages: English (Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton), Dutch (Jan de Hartog), and French (George Simenon), among other writers of mystery novels in various languages.

My fondness for mystery novels has never really left me. One of the first things I did after I moved to Japan in the mid eighties was buy a mystery novel in Japanese in a bookstore in Chiyoda-ku near Tokyo’s Central Railway Station and read it.

After I returned to California, I continued buying mystery novels (always on sale), and I still do here in Virginia, although this time only with books in English. I don’t like to borrow books from the library, nor do I enjoy reading them on my tablet. I tried it, but it didn’t work for me. You could say that the pages of a book have the power to touch me only if I can touch them too.

Somehow, with tablets, PDF files and other intangibles, I have the impression that my feelings are not reciprocated, unlike with pages that let me touch them.

My house is full of books now—at least half of them mystery novels—so many of them that when I move next time, which will probably be quite soon, I will have to get rid of most of them, even if it breaks my heart.

Still, we hoarders of books have an easier life than hoarders of cats and dogs. We don’t have to buy food for our books, nor do we have to walk them, they don’t bark, don’t piss on the carpet when they get mad at us, and if we simply decide to dump them because we need to move and don’t have the space for all of them anymore, they don’t really mind.

At least I hope they don’t mind.

But enough talking about me and my obsession with mystery novels. Let’s talk instead about me and my obsession with patents.

What do patents have in common with mystery novels?

At first glance, nothing. But appearances can be deceiving. I see many interesting similarities.

Unlike other types of technical translation (device or software manuals, for example), every patent is a story with a beginning, main theme, and an end, and sometimes the story is as touching as a country music song.

Just like the authors of mystery novels, patent application authors work in an environment based on certain rules that must be adhered to. In a mystery novel, the rules can sometimes be broken in a creative manner, for example when the author identifies the murderer in the first few pages. But it hardly ever happens because that is not what readers want or expect.

Just like readers of mystery novels expect the novel to be guided by specific rules, national patent offices in different countries expect patent applications to be based on specific rules.

The application starts with a description of existing technology, usually called prior art, the problems with existing technology (and there are always so many problems with it, none of it is basically any good!), and how the new patent is going to improve the old technology, usually by saving us all a ton of money, improving the environment, and generally making this world a better place to live in!

Then there are patent claims that are supposed to specify exactly what these new improvements are and how they work. In Japanese and Chinese patents, the patent applications start with claims; in European patents, the claims are at the end.

Placing claims at the end of the document makes much more sense from the viewpoint of a patent translator (or just about anybody else) because claims are often written in such impenetrable language that one can understand them only after all of the concepts have become clear from the previous text, and all the equivalent terms in a different language, English in my case, have been identified.

The claims are sometimes harder to figure out than a really complicated whodunnit especially with patent claims in languages that use a very different word order than English and place the verb at the end of a very long sentence. While in English the verb comes just after the subject, the verb is at the end of the sentence in German and Japanese.

Patent claims also often contain what in mysteries is called a ‘red herring’ – false clues that writers of mystery novels use to distract readers, confuse them and send them in the wrong direction.

The red herrings in patent writing are anticipatory, all-encompassing definitions of practical examples called ‘embodiments’ that include for example ridiculous ranges of boiling points, melting points, temperatures, angles, materials and constituents, components and just about anything else. The ranges and many different possibilities are intended to cover the next potential inventions in which for example only a boiling point of a certain chemical is changed by one or two degrees in comparison to existing technology.

I am not kidding. At one point I was translating dozens of Japanese patents and articles dealing with pharmaceuticals, on and off for more than a year, where my client was mostly interested in one thing and one thing only: the boiling point of the chemicals.

So a really good patent application writer needs to fill the patent with a number of red herrings that would make it possible to claim a few months or years later, when somebody comes up with another minute improvement, that this improvement has already been covered by a previous patent, and therefore the new patent should not have been granted, or that it must be invalidated if it has already been granted.

And if the patent is not valid, there is of course no need to pay royalties to the owner of the patent.

Part of the fun of reading mystery novels or patents is looking for red herrings in mysteries and their equivalents in patent applications.

Patent translation is not for beginners. But if you already are a fairly experienced translator, possibly a technical translator who is staying away from patents because they have a reputation for being difficult, you may want to give patent translation a try.

Start with something simple – a patent that one can clearly understand right away, because those exist too. This is in fact the only way to find out whether you are patent translator material.

If you happen to be somebody who enjoys well-written mystery novels, you might be able to add patent sleuthing and translation of  patents from foreign languages as one of your valuable skills.

The problem with mystery novels is that, unfortunately, nobody pays us for reading them, while on the other hand, patent translation tends to pay a little bit better than most other types of translation.

No matter how enjoyable mystery novels are, in this respect, patent translation clearly beats reading mystery novels.


  1. You make it sound so simple! A patent is not a patent is not a patent! There are patents that are easy to translate because the invention is simple and the text is clear and lucid and easy to understand. There are also various tricks that one needs to know such as the numbers that refer to the drawings, the “prior art” and “person versed in the art” phrases, etc. Some years ago, I attended a very useful talk about how to translate patents given by someone from an agency that specialised in patents. The agency no longer exists, unfortunately, and translation agencies have now become post offices and no longer offer any training.


    • One of my agencies has offered me training on several occasions – so you see there are still some out there which care!


  2. Which agency was it?


  3. Steve, it’s interesting to know that we aren’t the only translators with a house full of books – we must have thousands. Since the kids left home, my husband seems to think he needs to use up the space released by filling it with books…
    I like your comparison between patent translation and mystery novels. We do a fair number of patent translations from time to time. Sometimes our source is someone else’s poor translation into English or French (say, from Chinese). So the mystery is trying to work out what the gobbledygook is supposed to mean…sometimes we have to go back to the client to find out…


  4. “Since the kids left home, my husband seems to think he needs to use up the space released by filling it with books…:

    Personally, I can’t think of a better way to use the two bedrooms that used to belong to our kids and now belong to me either.

    (I still do let them sleep there though when they visit once or twice a year.)


  5. […] Source: If You Like Mysteries, You Are Probably Patent Translator Material and You Don’t Even Know It […]


  6. Ah, a fellow mystery lover! I got addicted when I discovered Agatha Christie in my early teens and have been working my way through authors since. And I’m jealous of your emerald edition books; that would totally add to the sense of mystery. I think you’re onto something with the connection between the enjoyment of mysteries and patent translations, and I think it works for medical translations as well: what I love about it is exactly that: the analytical puzzle aspect of the sentences themselves plus the unfolding mystery of the patient’s condition. And yes, books everywhere; I don’t know what we’re going to do if we ever have to move…

    Liked by 1 person

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