The European Patent Office is using machine translation to improve access to patent documents in multiple languages – but will it work?

Launched today, from the cover of darkness, the EPO’s new machine translation service, called (rather creatively) Patent Translate, rips off Google’s Translate technology and boasts the ability to translate from English into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Swedish, and vice versa. But we’ll be the judge. According to the EPO, these languages alone cover 90% of all patents issued in Europe, but not content with that, by 2014 it is hoped that patent translate will have the capability to translate to and from all the languages of the EPO member states, as well as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian. There really is no hope.

Talking of language barriers like a terrible pestilence, EPO President Benoît Battistelli said: “The launch today is a landmark towards the removal of language barriers worldwide from patent documentation”.

He continued: “Patent Translate enables businesses and innovators to identify relevant patent documents and to translate them in their own language. It also facilitates the implementation of the unitary patent which includes an important chapter on translation. The new tool underlines the leading role of the EPO as the largest provider of free patent data, and efficiently supports the objective of both partners, Google and the EPO, of improving the accessibility of technical information contained in patents irrespective of the language of the user.”

Head of public policy at Google Brussells, Antoine Aubert, seemed equally pleased: “The partnership between the EPO and Google is a great technical solution to the complex challenge of delivering better translations of – and better multilingual access to – patent information.” He said: “We’re delighted to be offering the service in seven languages via the EPO’s website and the Google Translate service, and we’ll be working to further optimise our system – and make the other 21 EPO languages available in the coming years.”

Like something out of The Terminator, the EPO and Google have been working together for the last year to feed several thousand “high-quality translations” (by which they probably mean human translations) into the Google Translate machine in order to ‘train’ the system. As more patents are translated, the more the machine translation system will be able to do. Such as sit and roll over. A new batch of patents in Greek, Hungarian, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Finnish will be uploaded in 2013 if the world hasn’t already ended, and by 2014 the project should be complete.

In all seriousness, we think this is a step back by the EPO. We are not against the use of Google Translate for certain things, and it does have its uses even for human translators, but for translating complex and highly-technical documents such as patents, we do not feel that the technology is as capable as a qualified, experienced human being. We’d very much like to be proved wrong, but we won’t hold our breath.

What do you think? Should we start forming the resistance?