by James Phillips

People that are considering a career in patent translation often seem to have exactly the same questions. In this article I will attempt to answer those questions, give some hints as to how you can study for free, and give some useful advice regarding how to get work once qualified.

The following is a list of questions I am asked most often.

  1. Is there a demand for patent translators?
  2. Do you think I would make a good patent translator?
  3. What is the best way to become a patent translator?
  4. Can I really study for free?
  5. Should I work in-house, or freelance?
  6. How can I get freelance work?

1. Is there a demand for patent translators?

This question is easy to answer. Yes, there is always a demand for GOOD patent translators. A good translator will usually have the following:
a) An excellent understanding of the source and target languages.
b) A detailed knowledge of the subject being translated.
c) Specialist knowledge relating to how to translate patent specifications.
d) A meticulous approach with regards to quality and deadlines.

If you already have a) and b) then you have an excellent chance of achieving your objectives as c) and d) can be picked up with relative ease (at least compared to a) and b)!). Having a specialist subject that you know inside-out is an enormous advantage. It will make the task of translating much more straightforward and it will also be much easier to sell yourself as a translator. The translation work itself will also be more interesting for you because if you have an in-depth knowledge of the subject it is probably something you like (hopefully!). If you do not have any kind of specialization then it will be more difficult to sell yourself to potential customers and the fees you can command are likely to be lower than a specialist. However, if there is a subject you have a strong interest in that you feel you can pick-up with relative ease, then maybe it will be possible to turn that subject into your specialization.

2. Do you think I would make a good patent translator?

All good translators have one thing in common: a willingness to ask questions and to never stop learning. If you have a willingness to learn and preferably some kind of specialist subject then there is every chance that you will be able to become a successful patent translator. You should be aware though that this will require a relatively sustained amount of effort over a reasonable period of time. Like most skills worth having, it is not the kind of skill you can pick up overnight.

3. What is the best way to become a patent translator?

I obviously have a vested interest in this subject as I provide courses in patent translation via my site at horsefrog.com and there is a bewildering array of courses offered by a wide range of translation schools. However, such courses will often serve merely as a springboard for entry into the business, but what approach should then be taken to gaining the right kind of experience that will help you to become a high-quality patent translator? The most common route is to join a patent office or the patent department of a company as a junior translator. When choosing such a job, take care to be sure that you will be tutored in an effective manner by the staff of the company. The level of expertise offered by a patent office or company patent department will often be higher than that offered by a translation agency but you may find that entry is more difficult as a result so a translation agency may also be considered. If, for example, you have already had a career spanning a number of years as an engineer, you may find that you can skip this step altogether and go straight to being a freelancer by making use of your specialty.

4. Can I really study for free?

Yes, self-training is possible to a certain extent. The big advantage with the Internet is that it provides a wealth of information that can be harvested for the purposes of study. For example, it is possible to search the USPTO for a US patent that has a corresponding Japanese patent and then search the JPO for the equivalent Japanese patent. This will often yield two almost identical documents that can then be used for the purposes of studying. You can also get documents in the exact field you wish to study by searching in a manner corresponding to this field. Detailed instructions of how to do this are provided on the horsefrog.com site. We also run free online patent translation workshops on the horsefrog site once a month where you can have a short translation evaluated for free and we provide free translator level evaluations. Free glossaries and a forum are also provided. The JPO, USPTO, and WIPO sites themselves are also excellent free sources of information regarding patents and how they should be written.

One suggestion I would have if you are studying by yourself though is to be very careful not to study simply by memorizing sentences. A much better approach is to read the document you are intending to translate very carefully, gain a full understanding of the invention first, then translate the document in the manner that you yourself would actually have written the document had you actually been the author. Finally, compare your translation to the actual original document. This will give your translations a much more natural feeling than attempting to translate a document word for word. Joining a translation organization such as JTF or JAT will also enable you to share your experiences with others in the same situation and pick up a great deal of useful information that would otherwise be extremely difficult to acquire. The more enthusiastic amongst you may consider attending the upcoming IJET-19 conference to be held at a beautiful location in Okinawa on April 12th/13th. This will be a particularly valuable opportunity for those new to translation to pick up lots of useful information and will include several presentations on the subject of patent translation.

5. Should I work in-house, or freelance?

This really very much depends on the kind of person you are. If you are a social person that likes to be around other people all the time then you are probably more suited to working in-house. If, on the other hand, you put great value on independence, would love the freedom to make your own schedule as you please and don’t at all mind being by yourself a lot, then freelancing may well seem like heaven to you.

6. How can I get freelance work once I feel I am ready to become a patent translator?

There are many ways to get work once you feel you are equipped to complete the work effectively. There is, of course, the traditional approach of applying for jobs through the various media. However, a more proactive approach is likely to meet with much more success. For example, make a list of the companies that you would most like to work for (companies that most closely match your field of specialty, for example). Then find some material by the company of your choice (for example, a short section of a patent belonging to that company). Translate the material and send it to the company concerned, together with a letter explaining who you are, what you do, and why you would like to work for that particular company. This approach is much more likely to meet with success and is widely considered by people in the translation business to be the most effective. It naturally involves more effort than the more traditional approaches, but the company can see the quality of your work immediately and is likely to be more interested in somebody who has shown such an obvious interest in their company rather than somebody who has simply sent hundreds of general-looking resumes to lots of different companies.