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Just how literal do you want that translation?

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Mark Ritter photo McElroy Translation is often immersed in the language translation that is generated by patent prosecution and patent litigation. In this article McElroy Chief Editor Dr. Mark Ritter applies his dry wit to the questions of when to provide a “literal” translation.

From time to time translation agencies receive requests for a “literal” translation. This seemingly inoffensive adjective is much like the term “obscene.” No one is quite sure how to define it, but we all know it when we see it. When a literal translation is explicitly specified, an agency specializing in intellectual property translation reacts somewhat like a minister who is asked to preach a religious sermon: “that’s the only kind I know.”

Clearly one thing that “literal” means is “don’t embellish, don’t summarize,” a fundamental principle for IP translators. Sometimes, however, a totally straightforward translation fails to convey the meaning. Consider, for instance, a common disclaimer on the title pages of many German patents: “Die folgenden Angaben sind den vom Anmelder eingereichten Unterlagen entnommen.” [The following information is taken from the documents submitted by the applicant.] When I first encountered this sentence my reaction was: “Where else could it come from—the patent fairy?”

It seemed like just one more piece of meaningless bureaucratese and I went on to the real job. I later observed that this notice appears only on published unexamined applications that have been typeset in the standard eye-destroying minuscule font of the German Patent Office, rather than being published as a photomechanical reproduction of the original typescript submission. Then it made sense—it is a reminder that, although this may look like a granted patent typographically, it has not been edited. A less literal translation such as “The following information is published in the version submitted by the applicant” is equally accurate and more informative.

Sometimes a “literal” translation provides too much information. A conscientious translator may feel bound to translate every word, no matter how peripheral to the basic subject matter. Did the requester really want the phone numbers and addresses of all 14 branch offices of that foreign patent office? On a somewhat higher level, differences in the structure of source and target language may interfere with comprehension if the translator takes a slavishly literal approach. In translations of Japanese patents, for instance, one often encounters phrases such as “the fluid passes through between retaining walls 3 and 4.” Even if there are two prepositions in the original, one will do quite nicely in English. The art of translation is to convey the meaning as precisely as possible without distortion by the grammatical peculiarities of the source language.

Similar problems occur in languages that allow the formation of new compound words almost at will. In an attempt at extra precision, the Japanese or German patent attorney writes, literally, “a windshield wiper motor used to operate a windshield wiper arm supporting a windshield wiper blade for wiping the windshields of motor vehicles.” If “wiper motor” and “wiper arm” are the accepted terms of art in English, there is absolutely no loss of information from adopting these less literal alternatives. A good technical translator will not ignore how the translation reads, but will reluctantly accept something less than beautiful prose if the job requires. This is what I believe customers mean when they ask for a “literal” translation.

With translations as with prayers, it’s always a good thing to think twice about what you wish for. You just might get it.

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