Online dictionary resources for patent, technical and medical translation from Japanese, German and French to English. Part 1 -  The Japan Patent Office Website Patent Translations translation jobs
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Online dictionary resources for patent, technical and medical translation from Japanese, German and French to English. Part 1 - The Japan Patent Office Website

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Note: Because the information provided on the websites of patent offices of countries listed in my articles is being constantly updated, the URLs listed in my articles may be obsolete. Current links to search pages of patent offices that can be used as context-based dictionaries are also available on my website at


I have always been intrigued by the very idea of a dictionary. Or at least since a very young age, I think I must have had an instinctive understanding of the value of a good dictionary. When I was 15 (1967), I found in the attic an unexpected treasure: an old Latin-Greek-German-Czech dictionary, published around 1920. It had more than 600 pages and it was in perfectly good shape except for the binding which was falling apart. I somehow found the money to have it bound again and it came in very handy because for the next 5 years or so I was quite obsessed with Latin. But passion for Latin proved to be a passing phase in the life of this teenager. French proved to be much more interesting, German much more useful, and Japanese well, Japanese was a challenge that I just could not resist, which is why I started learning Japanese as a full time student at Charles University in Prague in 1975, and 30 years later, I am a pretty good beginner.

In mid eighties, when I became a freelance technical translator in San Francisco, mostly from Japanese and German, I would be normally spending more than a thousand dollars a year for quite a few years for technical and medical Japanese-to-English dictionaries at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Japan town. It may sound like a lot, but technical dictionaries are very expensive. If you Google a few well known dictionaries, you will see that Stedmans English-Japanese Medical Dictionary costs in 2005 about $350, which is a fairly representative price for a good Japanese-English medical dictionary. I remember that the second edition of Interpress Japanese-English Dictionary of Science and Engineering, perhaps the most comprehensive technical dictionary at the time when it was published, set me back $800 in 1992. The prices of German and French dictionaries are usually more reasonable, Woerterbuch der Medizin und Pharmazeutik (Werner E. Bunjes), for example, costs about $110 in 2005.  


But I no longer buy Japanese or German technical and medical dictionaries much. The last one was a German medical dictionary a couple of years ago, and I did not find it really all that helpful. The main reason why I dont have to spend as much money on dictionaries is the fact that I am using databases maintained by the Japan Patent Office (JPO), European Patent Office (EPO), German Patent Office (GPO) and World Intellectual Property Information Organization (WIPO) in English, Japanese, German, and French. The JPO website is the most comprehensive and the most useful resource, because all unexamined (Kokai) Japanese patent applications published since 1971 are provided with an English summary at the following URL: I can use this URL to input a number of a Japanese Kokai patents to display an English summary of the patent, or to input one or more technical terms in English to display a list of Kokai patent summaries containing these terms. Usually, however, I start my search for a suitable English translation of a Japanese medical or technical term from the Japanese search page of the JPO website, which is at: The big advantage of a website over a traditional type of dictionary is the fact that our search for a correct translation of a technical or medical term can be placed in the proper context. For example, if we need to confirm the English name of a certain pharmacologically active compound and its derivatives, we can specify the (assumed) name of the compound in Japanese together with other terms narrowing down the context (for example: pharmaceutical agent + bioavailability + gastrointestinal tract) in Japanese to display a list English summaries of Japanese patents containing ALL OF THESE TERMS in the same or similar context. The context will thus be much more comprehensive because unlike on a dictionary page, the amount of space available online for context is virtually unlimited. Another advantage is that we can compare different translations of the same terms by different authors of summaries of different patents dealing with the same or similar subject. While the English of summaries of Japanese patent applications available on the JPO website is often not very elegant and sometime hard to understand because the text is obviously written by native Japanese speakers, the technical and medical terms are usually correctly translated from Japanese to English. In some cases a term may be mistranslated (or even avoided, presumably because the translator is not sure of the English equivalent), but these occurrences are relatively rare. (Before we start criticizing non-native translators of Japanese or German patents into English, let us try to imagine what a mess most American translators whose native languages is English would make if they attempted to translate English into Japanese or German). When we are not sure what the proper English term is, once we find a number of summaries in which a certain term is consistently translated in a certain way, we can be reasonably certain that this is in fact the correct translation, or at least a translation that is preferred on the JPO website, which means that this is the term that our clients will be probably using to find additional prior art. This also means that we do not really have much choice but to use the terms that are most commonly used by translators who provide these English summaries to the JPO.  


Every patent translator will have his or her terminology questioned at some point by a client. While our clients are not always right, we cannot really afford to disagree with their opinion, and they may not be aware that it is not always possible for a translator to anticipate the exact term that the client wants the translator to use. I remember that a long translation of a clinical trial from Japanese to English was cancelled because I used the term secrete instead of discharge (into urine) in my translation. Since this was not a patent, I could not really defend myself by pointing out that secretion is what the Japanese word bunpitsu means and by providing a number of English summaries where this word is translated as secretion in the same context. What is really important to the client in such a case is that the translators adhere to the guidelines for terms to be used in accordance with good clinical practice (GCP) protocol for clinical trials or with good manufacturing practice (GMP) protocol for manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and the actual meaning of the Japanese characters or of the Japanese word is in fact of secondary importance. However, I also remember how on another occasion I was able to placate an anxious patent lawyer who had problems with an unusual Japanese technical term that I used in my translation because this particular term was being questioned by the opposition. Fortunately, I was able to find a number of examples of English summaries of different Japanese patent applications in which the same Japanese term was translated in exactly the same manner. In fact, I could not find other suitable translations of this term. Because the JPO website also lists names of patent applicants and inventors, translators can also use the site to confirm the English spelling of names of Japanese companies and of Japanese personal names, which must be often guessed because multiple and unexpected pronunciation variants of Japanese characters are very popular in Japanese personal names. The website is thus a life saver for a translator who has been, for example, faxed a poorly legible, fourth generation Japanese patent for translation into English, which is almost always untranslatable simply because it is not legible enough. Thanks to the ubiquity of Internet, an experienced translator can: 1. find online a clearly legible copy, 2. query unfamiliar technical terms in Japanese to select a correct equivalent in English, and 3. verify the English spelling of Japanese names and the correct English names of Japanese companies who are usually named as patent applicants, without having to ask the client any questions (to which the client would usually have no answers anyway), from just about any location on the planet. The ability to verify the correct English names of Japanese companies is in fact very important because English names of Japanese companies are sometime very different from what the name really means in Japanese (which is also true about the names of Chinese restaurants), and we definitely do not want to confuse our clients by giving them an incorrect name.  


Synchronicity is a term that was used by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung to describe the alignment of universal forces with ones own life experience, when a sudden synchronism of events that appear to be connected but have no demonstrable causal relationship strikes us as a highly unusual and improbable occurrence. (This was a few decades before the British rock artist Sting made the word popular in his album titled Synchronicity in mid eighties). For example, I may be driving in my car, listening to music on the car radio, and suddenly for some reason I think of a strange word, name, or concept for instance Biarritz, a small city in France that I have never been to, but I remember from some novel, probably, that it is a seaside resort. A few moments later, the radio announcer says something about Biarritz, as it is related to a song to be played next. We all have experienced weird and unexplainable impossible, really coincidences like this. Jung believed that some, if not all, coincidences were not mere chance, but instead an alignment of forces in the universe to create an event or circumstances. Jung also believed that people who are aware of this alignment of forces can shape events around them through the communication of their consciousness with the collective unconscious (isnt this how Google was invented?). The theory of synchronicity is not testable according to any scientific method and is not widely regarded as scientific at all, but rather pseudoscientific. Some may say that synchronicity is a strand of magical thinking (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). Whether synchronicity is scientific or not, a strand of magical thinking is precisely what a translator needs when he or she cannot for some reason find the right word in the target language. Fortunately for us, translators, the forces were aligned just right in universe when Japanese translators started creating English summaries of Japanese patents that were then made available online by the JPO to anybody.    


            During the initial stages of  my translation of a Japanese patent, I am often constantly on the JPO website, because this is the stage during which I need to decide which terms I will be using in my translation (even if I am pretty sure that I know the terms quite well). However, always mindful of the invisible hand of cosmic synchronicity, I try to use English terms that are provided in summaries that are available on the JPO website not to disturb the cosmic alignment of magical synchronic forces in universe, unless I strongly disagree with the term and consider it a clear mistranslation otherwise I might have to explain to a client why am I not using those terms, which could be difficult if the client does not understand Japanese. Unlike a few years ago, it is now very easy to use Japanese and English with the same operating system (Windows, in my case). You can either download a free Japanese language capability from the Microsoft website (or through the following link on my website:, or if you have Microsoft Office, Japanese language capability is a built-in feature that can be activated. The problem is that you have to remember whether you are using the English or the Japanese keyboard at any given moment, and because I keep forgetting which keyboard I am using when I am constantly jumping from English to Japanese screens and vice versa, I have to type many things twice. Also, the patent number cannot be copied from a Japanese search to an English search page (because the input method is different, although the numbers look the same on the screen), so you have to input numbers manually while remembering to switch the input to English. The JPO has recently upgraded its Japanese search function, which has a much more elegant interface now that works fine not only with Internet Explorer, but also with other browsers (Mozilla Firefox is my preferred browser). The website can be also accessed from some types of cell phones. I have never used this function, but I can just imagine a busy Japanese patent lawyer, working on his cell phone in a train on the Yamanote train line, pecking away expertly on his cell phone, frantically looking for examples of prior art on the JPO website because the deadline for filing is only a few hours away .  


I also use the JPO website to confirm English equivalents of complicated Japanese technical and medical terms in Japanese professional journals, for example Latin names of plants, animal species, microbiological cultures, or bones, which are sometimes simply transliterated in Japanese articles into katakana (a form of Japanese alphabet). The easiest way to confirm the correct spelling is usually to find an English summary of a Japanese patent containing these terms, or a Japanese patent that lists both the spelling in katakana and in Latin, which is sometime the case. It is of course also possible to use a Japanese search engine to type a Latin name transcribed into katakana to track down the Latin spelling in English, but the JPO website usually provides more accurate context, both in Japanese and in English. One problem with the JPO website is that it is often off-line on Saturdays and Sundays when the database is being updated, and because translation deadlines are often timed for Mondays when normal people (non-translators, also known as civilians in the translating profession) go back to work, Saturdays and Sundays are working days for many translators.


See also: "Part 2 - Useful Websites for Translation of Patents from German and French"

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