A Great Question: what attorneys can learn from an NYU patent translation course

A Great Question: what attorneys can learn from an NYU patent translation course

Recently, I had the honor of being invited to talk about translation in the New York University SCPS Masters in Translation program, as a guest author in Francoise Herrmann’s Patent Translation course.

The students in this class came prepared with many questions that impressed me with the depth of thought that they demonstrated. One question, however, posed by Emily Whelan, went right to the heart of a common problem in patent translation: one with dramatic consequences for both prosecution and litigation attorneys.

The class had been assigned the translation of a Belgian patent filed in 1929, which set out to improve on what was at the time a new invention: crepe-rubber shoe soles. While the early versions of this newfangled footwear were waterproof and resistant to wear, they were also so slippery that, when walking on wet ground, it was almost impossible to move forward. The solution proposed in the patent was to provide “dessins à parties saillantes et rentrantes” (patterns having raised and recessed parts) on the bottom of the sole, as shown in the drawings.

Here, the student felt that the literal translation of, “having raised and recessed parts,” made the text somewhat cumbersome. This is where both patent attorneys (who probably didn’t find anything cumbersome about “raised and recessed parts”) and ordinary translators (who probably did) should pay attention. Like all good translators, the student had learned to avoid calques, which is to say, slavish word-by-word copying of the source text, which sounds unnatural in the target language. Examples of this sort of bad translation can be found on some Chinese restaurant menus (“cooked pig with five fragrant”) and signs for tourists (“annoying parking.”) In fact, interpreting and recasting the source text in the words that seem most suitable in the target language (“five-spice roast pork”/”no parking”) is at the center of the translator’s job description. In other words, translators are trained to believe (usually with good reason) that the more they avoid using clunky, awkward phrasing, the better they are doing their jobs. In this case, the student saw the unwieldy phrase, “patterns having raised and recessed parts,” and considered replacing this with the phrase “corrugated patterns.” There is no question that “corrugated patterns” reads more smoothly and, in light of the picture above, it seemed to be fitting. Her concern was that this phrasing was much shorter than the original and might leave out some of the meaning.

The student is to be applauded. Many, if not most, ordinary translators would not have hesitated to render this as “corrugated patterns” but while this rolls nicely off the tongue, it is very far indeed from the original disclosure. The problem is that it does not cover non-corrugated arrangements that nonetheless have raised and recessed parts such as this:

or even this:


In fact, even the linear pattern having raised and recessed parts that we first saw

need not be limited to corrugated configurations, as that would exclude jagged sawtooth patterns, or irregularly-stepped linear patterns, for example.

To select an accurate translation, the translator must be aware that the drafting attorney chose claim language that was deliberately broad. Without this awareness, the best practices of non-specialized translators, who want nothing more than a comfortable reading experience for their client, often result in the scope of the description being drastically narrowed. As a result, an attorney reading only the text of the translation could be led to believe that the patent does not disclose non-corrugated patterns.

A great deal of patent language sounds unnatural, verbose and stilted to the uninitiated, and this routinely leads to excessive editorial smoothing in lower-quality patent translations. 

Universities offering courses in patent translation are still relatively rare, but it is good to know that NYU is doing its part in making the word of translations a little safer for attorneys. 

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