Sometimes lucid, at other times obscure, there is always something new in the river of translation. BY STEVE VITEK

You can never step into the same river twice, for new waters are always flowing on to you, it is not the same river and you are not the same person.

Septembe 2010 coverI have been translating patents from Japanese, German, French and other languages into English for more than 22 years now. Before I start working, I usually download a legible copy of the original document from the European Patent Office (EPO) or Japan Patent Office (JPO) website. I usually first go to the EPO website because it lists a “family” of documents. This is very useful because many patents published in foreign languages may have been already filed in English in Europe, North America or Australia. A “Japanese patent” filed by IBM is in fact a Japanese translation of a US patent that was originally published in English, and a “French” patent may have been already translated into English at some point and filed, often in a modified version, in US or Europe, etc.

It would seem redundant and wasteful to pay, often thousands of dollars, for another translation into English when a perfectly good translation is already available on the Internet to anybody with basic Internet searching skills. The problem is, since my customer does not know the original language, he or she cannot determine what are the differences between different documents without ordering a new translation. This is fortunate for us translators, as we normally have a lot of bills to pay.

What is Acceptable?

Therefore, sometime I find myself translating a text in Japanese, German, or French although I have in front of me a corresponding text in English. I would estimate that I can find an English equivalent for about 20% of patents that I translate from Japanese, German or French. Most of the time, the changes are minor – for example the English heading “Background of the Invention” may be translated into Japanese as “Conventional Technology” or as “Prior Art” (“sendan no gijutsu” or “jurai no gijutsu“), although there is a perfectly good Japanese equivalent (“hatsumei no haigo“). The position of these sections is also reversed in different languages, for example they start with a description of figures and end with claims in Europe, but in Japan they start with claims and end with figures – because everything is the other way round in Japan as everybody who lived there for a while and knows the language will confirm. The only major difference between these documents is usually only in the claim section because there are different requirements on claims in different countries. What is perfectly acceptable in America may not be acceptable in Japan or in Europe and vice versa.

Because I know that my customer almost certainly has the English equivalent as well, I have to be very careful when I translate the same document again into English. Most of the time, if I make a minor error or omission when translating from a language that relatively few foreigners know, such as Czech or Japanese, nobody will notice it. But not in this case. This means that I actually spend more time working on these types of “new translations” than if I translate from scratch. Once you identify the terminology and understand the concept of the invention, you can usually pick up speed fairly quickly if you look only at 2 documents. But not when you have to work with 3 documents. The problem here is what I would call an interrupted stream of consciousness. Once you determine the technical terms that you want to use, a translation from scratch is a mostly uninterrupted stream of consciousness, interrupted usually only to the extent that you have to look up something in a dictionary, or Google a concept to understand it better, or the spelling of a name, obscured by transcription with Japanese katakana or Russian Cyrillic. It is a pleasurable activity when you can retrace the line of thinking expressed in one language and say it in another language, by simply looking at one source—usually a piece of paper, and moving your fingers over the keyboard and checking the monitor screen only occasionally. Translating without a lot of interruptions is almost like inspired writing, or “taking down dictation from God” as a friend of mine in San Francisco described it to me a long time ago. If you don’t know the terms, you have to keep interrupting your train of thought all the time, which can be pure torture. When you are retranslating, you have to follow in fact three lines of thinking that you are working with, including your own, which by definition means a lot of stopping, comparing, and going back and forth.

Those moments

But painfully slow retranslation of patents, laborious as it may be, has its moments. The moment I savor the most is when I find a mistake in an otherwise very good or excellent translation. It simply makes my day if it is a brilliant translation, and I still find a mistake in it—not just an awkward formulation, but a clear mistake based on a misunderstanding of the source language. It happens quite often with translations from Japanese, which is not surprising, given how difficult it is to master this language. I have been trying to do that for the last thirty five years and at this point I am still only a modestly advanced beginner. Some translations of Japanese patents into English, published as English equivalent documents for instance on the EPO website, are not very good, which is what I discovered when I was retranslating somewhat modified versions of the same documents. Well, there are just not enough good Japanese translators out there; this is understandable, and as far as I am concerned, it should stay that way. But even English equivalents of German patents published on Internet have mistakes in them. Although the translations published on the EPO website are written in smooth British English, when I look back at the German original, I can sometime spot a mistake, which as I said before, makes me very happy. I think the “English” word describing this euphoric feeling I am experiencing on such occasions is Schadenfreude.

Learning New Tricks

The other benefit that can be derived from laborious retranslation is that even an old dog like me can learn a few new useful tricks. There are things about German and Japanese that I have been wondering about for decades, and there are words and phrases that I have been looking up over and over again for some reasons, dozens of time, without knowing for sure whether I am finally getting it right. I am hardly alone who has suffered from this …. As a German translator recently told me in her e-mail: “I don’t know how many times I have researched drehbar gelagert“. I know what she means. I researched it about half a dozen times myself and then finally settled on “pivotably supported”. But “pivotably supported” is only one possible translation out of many possible translations. There are other possible interpretations, equally good or bad, depending on your viewpoint. It is not unlike different interpretations of a song. The song title “All Along the Watchtower” will evoke in most people of my generation the voice of Jimi Hendrix, rather than the voice of Bob Dylan who is the actual composer and who sang these words first. Drehbar gelagert can be also translated as rotationally mounted, rotationally arranged, rotatably arranged, and at least a dozen other variations are possible. None of them is really better than the other and some are pretty ugly, although they can still be found online, such as “turnably stored, rotatably supported”. The problem here is that, as Heraclitus would put it, we are trying to enter the same river too many times.

Sitting in Judgment

We all like to “sit in judgment” of others. That is why all those (fake reality) talent TV shows are so popular. They have them here in the US, in many European countries and elsewhere. They probably have a TV show called “Mongolia Has Talent” in Ulan Batar. It feels so good to be able to tell the real thing from a fake. Most of the existing translation that I am recreating for a paying client are not very complicated, but sometimes it does take talent to translate impenetrable German sentences or huge chunks of descriptive Japanese paragraphs that have no subject, no singular or plural, with a verb which has no tense and which is hiding at the very end.

Some of the formulations in the patents I have to translate simply make no sense, even if I read them several times. I call them “Jabberwockies” after the nonsensical poem by Lewis Carroll:

“‘Twas brillig, and slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Now compare the original Jabberwocky above to my translation of an actual German patent:

In order to deal with the stress created by the onslaught of large amounts of omnipresent information, on the one hand, the substantiality or the mass of a great number of construction mechanisms are rendered invisible under covering enclosures; while contributing on the other hand also to free time activities, the post-industrial society rediscovered in addition to sport-oriented versions of actual cycling also the esthetics of the design and the structural requirements leading to comfort during bicycling.

Which of the two Jabberwockies makes more sense to you? I suppose it is in the eye of the beholder, but I can easily visualize “slithy toves gyring and gimbling in the wabe”. But “substantiality or the mass of a great number of construction mechanisms rendered invisible under covering enclosure” …. I really have no idea what that means although it is my own translation. That’s one Jabberwocky that goes too far if you ask me.

But not everything in this world is meant to make sense, I suppose. Or maybe everything does make sense, but we are unable to see invisible connections between anything and everything because “new waters are always flowing on to us and we are not the same people any more anyway.”

After all, we are just translators of sometime lucid and sometime obscure texts that somebody else (a patent agent) will interpret for his client (a tiny upstart company or a huge corporation), so that each link in the food chain can make money—a little bit for the translator, a little bit more for the agent, and a lot for the corporation. SV