Wednesday, March 23, 2011


By Barbara Jungwirth

Gary Smith's Oct. 4, 2010 post in this blog, "Translation and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" noted that consumers generally don't consult help files or the documentation for their devices. They simply give up if a device doesn't work the way they think it should.

On the other hand, how often have you and I attempted to decipher badly written, badly organized and/or badly translated documentation for some device we bought? Small wonder that customers don’t even try to consult documentation after they have encountered a few such texts written in programmer speak, containing factual errors or translated into garbled English. If customers are to get into the habit of consulting help files or booklets, they must consistently encounter files or booklets that actually help them to solve problems with the devices they handle.

This, in turn, means that the documentation -- in whatever form -- must not only be accurate and well written, but also well-organized, with a device's particular audience in mind. A cell phone intended for senior citizens, for example, needs to be accompanied by an extensive printed booklet illustrating each step with large screen shots. A software developer kit that lets programmers write code for a certain computer platform, on the other hand, requires only very specific online information and can include acronyms and IT terminology.

While technical writers need to keep their audience in mind when writing the source text, we translators all too often forget -- or never know -- who might be reading our document. Just as the original writer's word choices depend on the target audience, so do ours. Sometimes we can glean from the source document who the likely readers might be, as in the examples cited above. If that is not obvious and if the client didn't tell us, we should ask. No need for extensive audience analysis, the answer to "Will this document be provided to the consumer or to the technician servicing the device?" or a similar question should provide enough information so that we can gear our choice of vocabulary and sentence structure towards the target audience.

Barbara Jungwirth provides German-English technical translation services through her company, reliable translations. Before becoming a translator, she wrote software documentation. This article is based on one of the posts on her blog, On Language and Translation (

Monday, March 7, 2011

Conference Session Review: Making Sense of U.S. and French Patent Terminology

By Joanne Archambault

I was in attendance for Bruce Popp’s presentation on “French Patent Terminology”. I have only translated a few patents up to now, and hope to translate more in the near future, so I was keen to learn appropriate patentese from an experienced patent translator like Bruce.

The first gem was a link ( to the European Patent Convention, a tri-lingual document with European Patent Office (EPO) rules and regulations. This is a valuable source for the terminology used in EPO documents—you can search for a term in one language and then look at the parallel sections in the other languages. Bruce said, “Don’t translate EPO documents without it.”

He then spoke about the definition of word phrases that occur in patents. An inventor can define whatever term they want, as long as any special meaning assigned to it is clearly set forth in the patent. The translator must translate this definition accurately, even if the definition set out in the patent is not consistent with current use of this word or phrase.

Bruce also explained how articles (“a” vs. “the” vs. “said”) used in patents depend on whether there is an antecedent for the noun. On the first appearance of a noun ‘a’ (un, une in French) is used. On a repeat occurrence of the same noun, “the” (le, la, les in French) is used; “the” indicates that an antecedent for the noun exists. Finally “said” (not “the said”; ledit, ladite, lesdites in French) is used to insist that this noun was referenced before.

One of the most useful things for me was Bruce’s discussion of the distinction between open and closed lists. An open list is non-exhaustive; other items can be added to the composition. In French, the key words are “comprendre, comporter”, which in English would be translated to “comprising, containing, including, characterized by”. A closed list claims what is explicitly listed. In French, the key words are “consister”, “constituer”, which in English would be translated as “consisting of” or “composed of”. And in between these two types of list is the middle ground type, which in French uses the words “consister essentiellement”, “ayant” or “avoir”. This limits the claims to the listed items and to those that do not materially affect the characteristics of the invention. Appropriate English wording for this type of list is “consisting essentially of”, or “having”.

Bruce offered some general terminology advice. Avoid the use of “‘s” (the possessive/genitive form) “the characteristic of the shoe” is preferred over “the shoe’s characteristic”, and also avoid the use of “its” in patent translations. Other juicy terminology advice included making sure to translate these words correctly:
Éventuellement (FR) --> Optionally, which may (EN)
Classiquement (FR) --> Conventionally (EN)
Impliquer (FR) --> Involve (EN)
Introduire (FR) --> Insert, put in, add (EN)
Susceptible (FR) --> Suitable, likely (EN)

And when you see “selon revendication”, the preferred translation is “as claimed in claim”; “according to claim” is also an acceptable translation. If you come across “caractérisé en ce que” or “caractérise par”, the preferred translation is “characterized in that” or “characterized by”. The use of “wherein” here is also OK.

Overall, I learned a great deal during this presentation. Bruce is knowledgeable, has an easy-going presentation style and connects well with the audience. As a bonus, he has great stories to share about the consequences of badly translated patents.

Joanne Archambault is a FR > EN translator with a PhD in Biology, who
specializes in Pharmaceuticals and Orthopedics. She works on a
variety of documents, including patents, in these areas.