This article was published in the February 2002 issue of  ATA Chronicle, the magazine of the American Translators Association (

Some Thoughts On The Modern Scientific Principle of Systematic Oversimplification In Translation of Patents

No matter how many times you may try to wash a black dog, it will not turn him into a white dog.

An Indian proverb (discovered on a website of a translator in Japan)

            It was a dark and stormy night in Eastern Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay. I was watching with my preteen children a rerun of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, fancying myself as Giles (definitely not Spike or Angel). After all, I am often as lugubriously absentminded as Giles, I presume to be an expert in a dark and secret lore (technical translation), I have a funny accent too, and unlike Giles, I speak fluent Slovakian!

            Sometime I get bored and turn on my laptop during one of the commercials, and if there is nothing of interest in my e-mail, fire up a search engine like Google or AskJeeves to check up on my competition on the Web by typing “Japanese patent translators” or something like that into the search field, often never to come back to Buffy’s latest count of slain bloodsucking monsters (my kids will gladly fill me in later). Hundreds or thousands of hits come usually back after such a search. Some of the web pages resulting from a search are from translation companies and agencies in US and around the world, some are from individual translators. It seems that translators are finally waking up to the opportunities of a worldwide market that is now as open to an individual player as it is to a multinational corporation on the Internet. If you search for example for “Korean translator”, some interesting website is bound to come up in California, England, or somewhere else. It is a good way to find out how much other people are charging for what you do.

Teams of language and subject-qualified experts carefully check and recheck our translations!

            Every agency and every individual usually claims that the translations are carefully proofread and checked for accuracy, style, cultural compatibility, etc., which is how the agency or translator achieves a superior product (although all other agencies and individuals claim the same thing). Translation agencies usually claim that their product is superior because they have teams of experts who carefully check and recheck the translation until they are able to shape the final product into a perfect form. Individual translators sometime pay for a proofreader, sometime have their wife or husband proofread the translation. Wives often don’t mind this chore, for some of them it is in fact a dream job - they get to criticize what their husband is doing wrong and he must be grateful to them and thank them profusely, sometime even give them money or flowers, or at least take them to a sushi bar every now and then, which can cost about as much as having a full time employee! In fact, even if the original translation is good or excellent, it is a very good idea to have a fresh pair of eyes look at it again and try to find errors, omissions, typos, etc., because we can’t usually see our own mistakes until somebody else points them to us. However, I am very skeptical when it comes to claims of “teams of language and subject-qualified experts” who labor tirelessly on a translation until a perfect match is achieved between the meaning of the original and the translated product which will “read as if it has been written in English in the first place”. I think that this whole concept is mostly an advertising gimmick aimed at gullible, monolingual translation consumers.

So why I never had a single call from a language and subject-qualified expert since 1987?

             Although most of my income is derived from my direct clients at this point, mostly patent law firms, I still work for translation agencies. Based on my interaction with translation agencies since 1987 in this country, I am sorry to say that I don’t know a single one that has on its staff teams of subject-qualified experts who would be able to add much, if any, value to my translations of Japanese patents by pointing out to me mistranslated terms or incorrectly interpreted Japanese parts of speech, etc. For some reason, not even one such expert called me in the last 14 years or so. Most of the time, I get a call from an agency only if I skip a line of Japanese text or if a recognizable (Arabic, not Chinese) number is missing in the otherwise Japanese and thus completely incomprehensible text. This is because the proofreader can almost never read any Japanese. It is usually a kid (I think I can say that now because I will hit the big five oh pretty soon) who maybe knows some French or Russian and thus works part time for an agency as a translation coordinator/proofreader. Most of them, however, are completely monolingual. Many of these kids seem pretty bright, although not all of them are as deferential to me as I think they should be. Needless to say, none of them is equally fluent in Japanese and English, and at the same time also experienced in translation of highly technical Japanese patents into English. This is probably because if they were language and subject-qualified experts, they could make much more money translating the same patents than working for an agency. Even a monolingual checker can catch omissions and typos and thus add some value to a translation, because even the best translators make mistakes sometime, especially when under the constant pressure of one deadline after another. If the original translation is good, there is not much that can or should be done with it, other than catching the occasional typo or omission. If the original translation is mediocre but still makes sense, you can perhaps fix a few technical terms or clumsy expressions, but that is about the only thing that can be done with it. And you can only do it if you happen to be a more experienced translator than the first translator.

Typical monolinguals are likely to do more harm than good with their editing of translations

            That is why typical monolinguals, even very smart monolinguals, are likely to do more harm than good to a highly technical translation if they try to change the meaning of something that may “sound strange” to them, without understanding the meaning of the original and/or the technical context. The smarter ones try to stick to fixing up typos and carefully checking for omissions by matching the lines and paragraphs because they know that patents in strange languages are likely to be “strange” by definition. If a translation of a Japanese patent sounds like a beautiful excerpt from another great American novel, the chances are that it is not a very good translation because it is not faithful to the original since that is not how they write patents in Japanese. When one strive to achieve a balance between the principles of fidelity to the original and elegance of expression in the target language, a mighty struggle that we all go through every day, it probably makes sense to emphasize elegance of expression in some types of commercial translations. But patents are translated to provide technical evidence that is often used in court of law. Every minor mistranslation or a slight change of meaning, which is usually not terribly clear in the original, can basically destroy the purpose of the whole translation. The best protection against a mistranslation is matching the right kind of translation with the right kind of translator. The problem is, unless an agency specializes in a certain field or language(s), the coordinator has often no idea what is in the text that is being sent to a freelance translator. Once a mistake is made and the wrong person accepts the wrong kind of work, the only remedy is usually a retranslation when an angry client refuses to pay for an unusable translation.

If you are not sure about the translations you are selling, shouldn’t you be selling used cars or refrigerators instead?

            How many times have you received a call from a person asking you whether you can translate “a document” in your language, and when you asked what kind of document, they told you that they were not sure? In my case, it is most of the time. A used car salesman who “is not sure” about the kind of car that he is selling is probably going to lose his customer. A translation coordinator who is not sure about his product either is likely eventually lose his customer too, although it may take some time before the customer discovers problems with a translation. And the company will probably not be sure why they lost that customer.

            Many clients are realizing that they may be better off by working with a specialized translation agency or an individual translator rather than with an agency that translates “all fields and all languages”.  When patent lawyers and paralegals run a search on the Web, they will be more likely to send us an e-mail instead of calling the biggest advertisement in their local Yellow Pages as they used to a few years ago if we seem to have exactly what they are looking for on our website. The same principle is probably applicable to other specialized fields of translation.

            But our potential clients who look for the right kind of specialists (who happen to be us) can only finds us if we make it easy or at least possible for them to find us by having our own website, being listed on the website of the ATA or of our local translators organizations, etc. It is a lot of work to create a website that will serve precisely this purpose, it takes some time and costs money. But in the end, it is time and money well spent. And as some of our clients are becoming more sophisticated about the nature of translation, they are beginning to realize that short of hiring the perfect translator full time for their company, which usually does not make sense for budgetary reasons, the only way to make sure that they get what they need is to enter into a long-term relationship with a professional translator or an agency that specializes in a fairly narrow field. Excellence in the field of translation does not fall all of a sudden from the sky. It is the result of a close relationship between translators and clients who supply the same translators with work in the same field, year after year. Instead of trying to wash a black dog that should have been a white dog, or to paint a white dog black when we have a white dog but we really wanted a black one, it makes much more sense to start with the right kind of color of the dog (the right translator) to begin with. For best results, you should still wash the dog - have the translation proofread carefully - as long as you know that you can’t change the dog’s color!

            The performance of some professions is suitable for team work, but team work may be less suitable for other professions. A team of professional burgers flippers working at Burger King will achieve best results if the guy who chops onions and cole slaw can also make fries and defrost frozen ground meat, as well as run the cash register, just like all the other professionals on the team, all of whom can be paid the equivalent of minimum age because the skills required here can be learned easily and all the team members are thus easily replaceable. But translation in highly specialized fields, slaying of vampires, or picture painting is less suitable for team work. When you have Buffy, Giles, and Willow going after the same monster with three different wooden sticks, the monster slayers could easily kill each other in the confusion of the fight, because vampire slaying is a highly individualistic art, not very suitable for team work. Imagine Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, and Thomas Kinkade cooperating on the same picture. They would probably start fighting with each other and one of them might end up missing an ear or another body part as a result of their cooperation. I believe that three different translators collaborating on the same text would probably end up killing each other too, because each of them is likely to be a supreme individualist using a different approach.

            As I said in the beginning, it may not be such a good idea to try to wash a black dog and expect to get a white dog after the washing, or to paint a white dog black. I would get the right color of the dog first. And it makes no sense to try to repaint Van Gogh or Schiele into Kinkaidian glitz because you want “to see the whole picture”. Each of the artists will paint a completely different picture of the same scene.

“It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”

            From what we know about translation, it seems to be more art than science or an easily learned skill such as flipping of burgers. But even if we were to consider translation more science than art in order to try to apply scientific principles to it, I would vote for the well known, time-tested scientific principle called Occam’s razor, after William of Occam (1285 - 1349), an English Franciscan friar who taught philosophy in Oxford and Munich, and among other things wrote anti-papal pamphlets that influenced Luther and later paved the way for Reformation. According to his most famous maxim called Occams’s razor - “it is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer”, namely, the fewest possible assumptions should be made when explaining a thing and the simplest hypothesis is usually the best. A few centuries later, this maxim became known in modern English as the KIS (keep it simple, stupid). What can be simpler than having one experienced and qualified translator translate a text and have a fresh pair of eyes proofread the translation afterwards, as qualified eyes as possible, rather than to try to do the same with “teams of subject and language-qualified experts”, as some companies like to claim, which would be in any case prohibitively expensive. After all, more than seven centuries later, science has been called the srt of systematic oversimplification by Karl Popper (1902-04), perhaps the most influential philosopher of science of the last century.

But the simplest and best solution ... may not always be the easiest one!

            When scientists take complicated processes and strip them down to their essentials, they can sometimes discover fundamental truths that apply to other processes. Amazingly, what scientists are trying to achieve in their laboratories is very similar to what poets, painters, and philosophers are trying to express with words, colors and shapes, and ideas. The problem is, the simplest and best solution may not always be as easy as it sounds. The simplest solution for translation of a certain type of text in a certain language would be if the person who answer the phone when a customer calls with a prospective translation knew the language and the field in question. The same person could then either translate the text or send it to a translator who is personally known to this person as being language and subject qualified. In reality, however, this does not always happen. Based on my interaction with agencies (“we have a document for you translation, but of course we have no idea what’s in it, because it is in Japanese, Slovak, etc.), it in fact does not seem to happen too often.

            Translation agencies who translate “everything” are hardly the only commercial or non-commercial providers of services in this country who do not seem to be paying much attention to actual and real knowledge of foreign languages. It would have been nice if the CIA, FBI, Immigration and other taxpayer-funded organizations had in key positions personnel fluent in Arabic and other languages on their payroll prior to September 11. According to newspaper reports a total of nine (nine!) people majored in the year 2000 in all the universities in the United States. Had wee been able to actually understand communication between terrorists in foreign languages that we were no doubt monitoring with our superior technology, it might have saved a few thousand American lives. I am hoping that we are doing more of it now, but I am not exactly holding my breath. It takes a long time before a country can change its monolingual view of the (known) universe. In a country as big as ours, the chances are that it will never happen anyway. It is easier to spend more money on more eavesdropping technology that nobody is actually listening to.       

Even a well known publishing house such as Alfred A. Knopf is “Two Steps Removed”

            The New York Times Book Review published on November 5, 2001 in the section “Letters” an excerpt from a letter of Paul Olchvary. I would like to end this article with an excerpt from this letter which the editors of the Book Review entitled “Two Steps Removed”:

            ”On behalf of more than 10 translators, editors or scholars of Hungarian literature, I wish to express our pleasure that Alfred A. Knopf has undertaken the American publication of one of Hungary’s most famous 20th-century authors, Sandor Marai. We are dismayed, however, that an author known for his distinctive Central European vision and his elegant Hungarian prose was translated not from the original work, but from a translation. The work in question is Marai’s short novel “Embers” (review, Oct. 14). Since only the copyright page indicates that the German is the source edition, many readers will have the impression that the translation is from the language Marai wrote it in. It is not. That a major publisher should condone such a long-outmoded practice is regrettable. Will readers of this twice-filtered English text hear Marai’s voice nearly as much as they would in a fine translation by someone in tune with the non-Indo-European nuances of the Hungarian? Established translators of Hungarian to English do exist in a sufficient number for a publisher to secure a first-rate translation from the original. ...... What, after all, would American readers say about the works of an eminent German author reaching them not directly from German, but Hungarian?”

            I have to wonder, unless you tell them, would they notice?


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