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The EPO recently partnered with Google to offer free machine translation of patents into multiple languages on espacenet. According to an EPO news release from March 24, 2011, “the EPO will use Google Translate technology to offer translation of patents on its website into 28 European languages, as well as into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian.” This news made me wonder: what is the future of human translation of patent documents? Can professional translators compete with the speed and lower prices of machine translation services?
I decided to ask an expert, Sonja Olson, Director of Translation Services at Landon IP. If anyone would know how human translation compares to machine translation, Sonja would know. I also found some useful articles that highlighted the importance of professional input in the patent translation process, especially if the document will be used for legal purposes. Read on to see what insights the journal articles and my conversation with Sonja provided about the future of patent translation!
Benefits of Machine Translation
Tim Cavalier illustrates the benefits of machine translation in his article “Perspectives on machine translation of patent information” in Volume 23, Issue 4 of World Patent Information (December 2001). According to Cavalier, machine translation (also known as MT) can lessen the workload for human translators by decreasing the amount of drafts that professional translators need to complete. Cavalier describes how “in many cases, MT can definitely be used to automate the first translation (draft) stage and quite often completely removes the need for undertaking any second (post-editing) phase” (367). Cavalier also discusses the lower cost and efficiency of machines translations: “the migration of patent information away from traditional manual translation methods leads to much more cost-effective and timely production methods” (369).
Machine translation is a useful tool for human translators, it’s less expensive than human translators, and the process is faster. However, Cavalier concludes that machine translations should only be used for limited purposes. According to Cavalier, “free or low-cost services may be fine for finding out whether the information is of any interest (i.e. browsing),” but researchers should use “manual translations when higher quality translations (e.g. legal) are required” (370-371). Why is human (manual) translation so important?
Why Human Translation Can Never Become Obsolete
Steve Vlasta Vitek discusses the importance of human translation of patent documents in his article “Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation or -Will MT Become the ‘Deus Ex Machina’ Rendering Humans Obsolete in an Age When ‘Deus Est Machina?‘”, published in Volume 4, No.3 of Translation Journal (July 2000). Vitek acknowledges the benefits of the cheaper machine translation: “It is much cheaper to use this option—the average cost for translating a machine-translated patent is about 60 dollars, while the average cost of human translation is at least ten times higher.” However, Vitek also highlights the main reason why machines can’t replace humans when it comes to creating high-quality translations:
The problem is that the machine does not understand the meaning of the document at all. Therefore, 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)
Vitek comes to the same conclusion as Cavelier: machine translation is an excellent tool for researchers to use when browsing patent documents for relevance, but a professional translator should be used when translating the document for official purposes. According to Vitek, patent searchers should translate documents “‘on the cheap’ by a machine and then ask a human translator to translate one or two important patents as evidence of prior art design.”
Vitek’s journal article was published a decade ago, and translation technology has greatly improved over the last 10 years. Search tools, like Google Translate, use semantic learning technology to improve their machine translations by “detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators” (from “Inside Google Translate“). However, even with this advancement in technology, translation tools still make many mistakes.
A recent article by Adam Wooten of the Deseret News, “Google Translate has great uses, disastrous misuses,” discusses some of the consequences of glitchy machine translations (quote originally found at a very informative blog post from Beyond Search):
A newspaper mistranslation repeatedly misquoted a former president of Kazakhstan as referring to the important issue of ‘passing gas.’ Israeli journalists nearly sparked an international incident when they seemed to insult a Dutch diplomat’s mother in a machine-translated message. Finally, an automatically translated furniture tag contained a racist slur that seriously offended customers in Toronto, Canada.
Obviously, machine translation technology isn’t perfect yet.
A Patent Translator’s Opinion
I wanted to hear an expert’s opinion first-hand, so I sat down with Landon IP’s Director of Translation Services Sonja Olson and Translation Services Manager Andreas Zierold to discuss the pros and cons of machine translation. Sonja quickly summarized her opinion: If you need to know if a document contains information on a topic, you can go with a machine translation. If you need to know how that topic relates to the document overall, then go with a professional translation.
Sonja described how IP professionals are usually divided into two camps: lawyers, who have a positive view of machine translation, and translators who have a not-so-positive view. According to Sonja, “machine translation will get the gist of the document, but it will lose the nuance. Machine translation can plug words together, but it can’t understand the sentence as a whole.”
When I asked Sonja about her thoughts on the partnership between the EPO and Google, she raised one main concern. Sonja described how the Google Translation tool is trained to translate patents by feeding English documents and the equivalent non-English applications into the system, and the system will learn that these documents are equivalent. However, “post-editing the translation for filing in certain target countries may introduce structural differences” between the documents. Sonja acknowledged that Google will probably account for this issue, but it is a problem that should definitely be addressed.
Machine or Human?
Sonja concluded that machine translation for the EPO documents is fine for informational and reference purposes, but it shouldn’t be used for filing or legal applications. Sonja Olson, Tim Cavalier, and Steve Vlasta Vitek all seem to be in agreement that machine translation is a useful tool for researchers quickly browsing documents for relavence, but human translators are essential for translating documents needed for legal purposes. A machine can create a rough translation of vocabulary and grammar, but humans can translate the meaning and structure of the document.
Have you ever encountered strange errors in machine translations of patents? What are your views on the EPO’s partnership with Google Translate? Let us know in the comments!
This post was contributed by Joelle Mornini. The Intellogist blog is provided for free by Intellogist’s parent company Landon IP, a major provider of patent searches, trademark searches, technical translations, and information retrieval services.