Google to machine translate patents

Google has confirmed that it will machine translate patents into more than 29 languages, using the Google Translate interface.

On 30th November, an agreement was reached between Google and the European Patent Office (EPO), in order to facilitate the understanding of patents throughout the world.

The 1.5 million documents currently in the database, as well as the 50,000 patents that are added annually, will be translated into the 29 languages used by the member countries of the EPO, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

For a number of years, the European Commission has supported the idea of a unified system, in which all patents are provided in English, French and German. Two major European countries, Spain and Italy, have protested against this, asserting that the translation of patents into those three languages is not sufficient. Officials involved in the recent agreement have stated that they hope this development will be welcomed by countries who feel they may have been put at a disadvantage, due to the language they speak. While extending the system to include other languages is very important, and would represent significant progress, is machine translation really the way to go about it?

It has been acknowledged that this development is not good news for Language Service Providers, particularly those who specialise in the translation of patents. However, it is hoped that the availability of patents in a number of languages will lead to the removal of a substantial global barrier, and eliminate the cost of translation, a factor that currently hinders the expansion of small businesses.

One problematic element of this advancement that will no doubt be discussed by translation companies throughout the world, is the accuracy of these translations. How reliable is machine translation? How reliable is Google translate? It can be proven, by a simple translation and back translation process, that machine translation is far from 100% exact. As has been discussed on this blog before, and by copious others, “the raw product of these tools is never going to be a substitute for professional human translation. There’s just no sensible comparison”. When translating a patent document and the specific, often technical terminology it is likely to contain, it is imperative that the translation is accurate. Do we really want to entrust a process for which expert translators have trained for well over 10 years (in many cases more like 20 or 30) to a machine?

Whilst machine translations may prove useful in translating emails, automated messages, blog posts or news articles, surely a piece of text as important as a patent should be translated and proofread by two individual native speakers?

Am I overreacting? Should we throw any text, no matter how complex, into Google Translate and see what it throws back? Let us know your thoughts…