The EPO starts cooperation with Google to provide machine translation of patents
On 24 March, the EPO and Google signed an agreement to collaborate on machine translation of patents. Using Google Translate technology, the EPO will offer translations into 28 European languages, and into Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian. In order to be able to adapt the machine translation to the specific language used in patents, Google will get access to the accumulated mass of translated patents that is available at the EPO. At first, machine translations between the three official languages of the EPO, English, French and German, will be available. Later, the other languages will be added.
There have been prophecies that machine translations will break down all language barriers. In patent databases, machine translations into English of at least the abstracts of the patent applications are often available, but the quality of these translations is questionable. Trying to sort out the interesting documents using badly translated abstracts is tedious at best, and sometimes errors in the translations even make it impossible to recognize documents that are really important. With a basic knowledge of the original language of the abstract, the researcher may spot some of the errors and still find the relevant documents, but if the original language is completely foreign, the researcher is lost. Anyone who has tried the experiment of translating back and forth between a few languages using machine translation knows that the original meaning is quickly distorted, making the translation process an advanced version of the children’s whispering game.
The ambitions of the EPO and Google in their quest to provide machine translations are commendable. There is most definitely a need for quick access also to patent documents in languages other than English, or whatever the language skills of the person searching the patent literature. Actually translating, manually, all patents of the world from other languages into English would of course be a help, but it would not be feasible. Then, think of translating between all the official languages of the EU, not to mention Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian, and the task becomes insurmountable. Therefore, machine translation is necessary. If training of the Google Translate tool on patent texts improves the quality of the machine translations and reduces the risk of completely misleading machine translations, this will be a valuable service to anyone searching the patent literature. However, once an interesting document has been found and a more complete understanding of it is sought, manual translation will most likely still be necessary. The day is not yet here, if ever it will come, when real, live, human translators will be redundant as a profession. And then, interpreting the scope of protection of the patent is a whole other story.
Nina Milanov, European Patent Attorney