“Hasn’t it always been there?” – machine translation for patents

I work with patents and I use machine translation at work very regularly, maybe every other day. Mostly I use MT to read patents and patent applications that are in other languages. We have a patent search database where we retrieve the patents and that database has a machine translation function built into it, so it’s very easy to use.

If we have an idea for a new invention, the first thing we have to do is make sure it has not already been invented by someone else. That’s why we need to read through other patents and patent applications – we’re looking for the ones that are closest to our own invention or product, those are the relevant ones. The others we can ignore. Many of the ones we read are already in English, but there are also quite a few that are in some other language, and those are the ones we read through machine translation. We also might read other patents to make sure others are not infringing on our patents (or vice versa), to keep up with what’s going on in our field, or to check on the IPR of other companies.

The languages we are translating from most are Chinese, Japanese and Korean. China is currently the largest producer of patents, by a lot, but Japan and Korea are also high on the list. Then sometimes we translate from German and French. I know some German but none of those other languages. For German patents I often check the original document as well as the machine translation, putting together both to get an understanding. 

If we don’t understand the machine translation well enough, we can resort to other methods. As I mentioned, the patent database has its own machine translation function. But it also offers an alternative, Google Translate, if the first translation we get isn’t good enough for us to understand. And if that’s still not enough to be able to see if the patent is relevant or not, we can order human translation for whatever piece of text we need. We also might order human translation when a patent is clearly very relevant and important to our work, so we have to be sure we have a very good understanding of it. And of course, if we need to use some information from a patent in a legal setting, we don’t use the machine-translated version, we get it translated by a human.

Machine translation saves us time. In situations where you don’t need to understand every detail, it really is sufficient. You can get some kind of understanding quickly.

What was work like before we had machine translation? Hmmm…hasn’t it always been there?! I have to say, I feel like it’s always been there. I think we’ve used it…at least since 2010. Our way of working has changed so dramatically over the years. The work has grown and gotten digitalized, and the MT was there and you just kind of noticed it and started to use it and it just…snuck up on you like a thief, now that I think about it.

Our new employees learn to use machine translation while learning to use our patent search database. And when they first start reading the machine translations, they just laugh. The sentences and the structures just look a bit funny. But once you get past that, then you get used to the level of the language and you learn to pick out the important points. Also, patent publications have a certain structure and there’s a certain format that they’re in. That makes them easier to follow.

And yes, we also make decisions based on machine translations, even though there are risks. We have to. It would simply not be possible to do all of this with human translations. Plus there are many other risks in our work – the first one comes when you go searching for relevant patents, you might use the wrong keywords or miss something. Then there are risks when using MT. But this is how our industry works, everybody uses machine translation to screen patents in other languages. Then when you’ve found the most relevant patents, you weigh the risks, importance, and cost, and decide what to do. Basically, the more risky the situation is, the less you are going to rely on machine translation.


patent text

Screen shot of an example patent picked by me (as you can see by the topic of blogging software) from the European Patent Office’s patent search database. The text in the background is the machine translation and the text in the pop-up blue box is the original paragraph in Chinese.


Interested in learning more about users of patent machine translation? My first academic paper on the group can be found here.

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