There has been a lot of fuss in the translation industry about the collaboration between the EPO (European Patent Office) and Google for patent translation services into multiple languages. It appears that the EPO and Google have been working together to create a translation service which will be optimised for patent documents and will make use of Google's Translate technology. Such news, however, has triggered different responses within the translation world and has been greeted with disbelief among the patent specialists. In order to understand their scepticism, it is useful to take a look at what patent translation involves and why appropriate treatment and expertise are necessary.
So what is Patent Translation?
If taking out a patent on new intellectual property is a complex process itself, just imagine what it takes to let the world know about it and at the same time be certain that you maintain your legal rights. Patent translation is the translation of patents and any associated documents required for patent offices, law firms and large corporations. In this sense, patent translation represents a crossroads between technical and legal translation and therefore requires a specialised professional and unique quality assurance standards. Translating the language of a patent requires specific technical knowledge and a small mistake can cost millions of pounds or negate years of research.
In this respect, it is not hard to understand why machine translation is dreaded among professionals in this case. The problem is that the machine does not understand the meaning of the document at all. Patent documents often use complex judicial terminology and abstract concepts that may not even exist in the target language. Therefore, as translator Steve Vlasta Vitek points out in his article “Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation”, “although most of the technical terms used by a machine will be correct, it is up to the reader to make sense of those words haphazardly jumbled up together by a non-thinking machine” (Vitek 2000). Furthermore, the Google Translation tool is trained to translate patents by feeding English documents and the equivalent non-English applications into the system. However, post-editing the translation for filing in certain target countries may introduce structural differences between the documents. It is also worth mentioning that translations made of the same document at different dates can differ as the translation engine is updated.
Machine translation would be a much cheaper solution, but bear in mind that mistranslating patent documents can cost you more than money. While machine translation may be helpful when browsing patent documents for informational and reference purposes, a professional translator should be used when translating the document for official purposes and filing or legal applications. To avoid inconsistencies and mistranslations, a professional will offer a number of quality assurance procedures tailored to your needs and budget.