Posted by: patenttranslator | January 29, 2020

The Total Unpredictability of the Present and Future of Patent Translators

“Whoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” Aristotle

The occupation of freelance translators, including patent translators, is possibly one of the most financially perilous occupations on the planet. There are really no safe language combinations anymore. I used to think for a long time that my job security was more or less guaranteed thanks to the fact that I was able to translate Japanese patents into English, not a very easy thing to do. And this assumption turned out to be true, for me at least, as I had plenty of work most of the time for more than 20 years.

But nothing lasts forever. Something changed in the demand for patent translations when about six or seven years ago, I noticed that two decades of more or less constant supply of work were replaced by haphazardly occurring periods of feast and famine. I was still able to make enough during the feast stages to stay afloat and continue paying my bills during the famine stages, but not enough to pay my taxes. Every April 15, the Tax Day in United States, I ended up with a large overdue tax bill that I had to pay over time, with interest.

Most people think that the sudden lack of demand for translation of patents from Japanese was and is due mainly to competition from very inexpensive Chinese translators. They may not really know that much Japanese, or English for that matter, but they do understand kanji (characters) and their translations are probably still much more reliable than machine translation output, which is free, or than “edited machine translations”, which are very cheap, but unreliable in a sneaky and unpredictable manner.

I think these were certainly major factors, but that there were also other important factors, including the loss of predominance of Japanese technology in so many high-tech fields as Japanese high-tech companies who ruled the high-tech world for several decades now have to compete with less expensive high-tech technology products being available from their counterparts in China and Korea in the 21st century.

I think that the availability of better, although still unreliable, machine translations also played an important role in the reduced demand for translations, namely in translation of Japanese patents for litigation purposes in my case, as opposed to translations of patents for filing purposes rather than for information only. Machine or inexpert translations are not suitable for filing in English patents originally published in a foreign language.

For a very long time I was translating patents for litigation purposes, mostly for US-based patent law firms, because translation of Japanese patents for filing was and I believe still is being done mostly in Japan.

What saved me during the first and second decade of this century was the fact that fortunately for me, in addition to translating Japanese patents to English, I was also increasingly translating more and more German patents to English. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another door opens, and so it happened that in 2017-2018 I was suddenly swamped with German patents, so much so that within a few months I was able to pay off my past-due tax bill and I started saving money for my upcoming retirement. Better late than never, right?

We are supposed to start saving for our retirement from a young age, but who can really do it, especially if you are the sole breadwinner in a family of four, right?

So during an extended period of famine toward the end of 2016 when I barely saw any Japanese patents at all, I got so scared that I filed for Social Security payments more than a year early.

I should not have done it because the early filing for retirement income resulted not only in a permanent reduction of my Social Security pension, and two months after I filed for Social Security payments, I was swamped with many long German patents for translation for filing from a new customer, and this supply of German patents lasted for about a year.

But since once you file for Social Security, you cannot “unfile”, the result was that instead of owing a lot of money for past-due taxes to the Internal Revenue Service, I suddenly owed 20,000 US$ to the Social Security Administration (SSA) because the SSA “overpaid” me with the pension I received for fiscal 2017. It took me eight months to pay this amount back, but fortunately it was not too bad, because all I had to do was just had to forego my Social Security pension payments for 9 months, and during that period of 9 months I was still making more than enough money to pay my bills and taxes.

The occupation of a patent translator is not only financially perilous, but it also often leads results in isolation loneliness, when the translator is working in quiet solitude for days, weeks and months on end in his cozy, silent home office.

But the world around us is anything but cozy and silent. As things in the world around us change, the Universe is constantly sending us messages letting us know about changes that we need to deal with. Sometime we don’t hear the messages at all, sometime we do hear them but choose to ignore them, out of laziness or because we can’t believe them for some reason, sometime we hear the message and choose to act on it.

It is important to try to listen to and understand these messages, because only if we understand them and know how to react to them, our future may become a little bit less unpredictable.


  1. That is a very good combination, I find: Jackson Browne and Aristotle. Interesting points, thanks.


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