It's the Translation Costs, Right?

by Gerry Gooding

Chronicle of the American Translators Assoc., Feb 1995, p. 18

    Japanese companies have much better success in getting U.S. patents than U.S. companies have in getting Japanese patents. Assuming, no doubt, that this must be due to unfair practices on the part of the Japanese, Senators Rockefeller and DeConcini asked the General Accounting Office to look into the specific reasons behind this US-Japan patent imbalance.
    To get the answers, the GAO asked U.S. patent attorneys to describe their problems. One oft-mentioned problem was poor translation quality. Another was the high cost of translation. Yep, you heard right: attorneys, of all people, think translators charge too much!
    There are ways to reduce patent translation costs. In Japan, much of the translation is done by patent attorneys. You may not be shocked to learn that patent attorneys charge more than translators. We translators would like to suggest that both the cost and the quality of translations could be improved by having translators, not attorneys, do the translating. It is easy to think of other ways to reduce translation costs: translators could screen documents to eliminate unnecessary translation, or they could check translations for accuracy, eliminating the back-translating which is so common today.
    Such measures would reduce translation costs, but they would not correct the US-Japan patent imbalance. The fact is, the GAO got it wrong: translation costs are not a very big part of the problem. Consider the following:

  • It is safe to say that essentially all Japanese patent attorneys working with U.S. patents read English, but only a handful of U.S. patent attorneys working with Japanese patents read Japanese.

  • U.S. courses on patent law are well-attended by Japanese patent attorneys, but most U.S. patent attorneys are forced to learn Japanese patent law by reading the little bit of English that has been written about it.

    In other words, the Japanese have a huge advantage: their attorneys can and do learn our patent system very well, but most of our attorneys cannot learn theirs.  The solution is obvious, but not easy: U.S. patent attorneys who intend to work with Japanese patents need to learn to read Japanese.
    Can't be done, you say?  You may be wrong.  The ATA's own Jim Davis, the administrator of the Japanese Language Division, runs a successful program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that teaches engineering students to read Japanese.  This program should be even more successful with patent attorneys than it is with other technical course students because they usually spend a bit longer in school.  Programs like Jim's could offer the best hope.
    Senators, if you wanted excuses, you asked the right folks.  If you wanted solutions, you should have asked Jim Davis.

Gerry Gooding is an ATA-accredited Japanese-to-English translator and a registered U.S. patent agent.  He lives in Huntington Beach, California.

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