Category Archives: MT in everyday life

“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.

Nora, young world traveler

One of the most comical situations I’ve been in with machine translation was when a colleague and I went to see a local tourist site in a part of China where people don’t tend to speak English. We were trying to buy tickets with the help of Google Translate but for some reason, no one could understand what we wanted. I think they were telling us where we needed to go, and we just kept repeating that we want to buy tickets. Then more and more people gathered around to help and we were all typing furiously on our phones. After 15 minutes we finally managed to get the tickets.

GT screenshot_buytickets

It was in China that I originally got the idea that machine translation would be helpful while traveling. Some colleagues and I were trying to work out something in Chinese when one of them pulled out her phone, translated, and we quickly figured it out. Before that I’d used Google Translate rarely, just to check individual words while I was studying or something.

Nowadays I use the Google Translate app very often. My work in the international travel industry means I travel to a lot of foreign destinations, spending 1-5 days in each. In many locations I get by just fine with English, but especially in China and Japan, I find myself pulling out my phone and using Google Translate many times a day.

One of the main places I use it is in restaurants and it seems to be a very common thing to do that. Especially in China, the minute they realize we don’t share a language, they pull out a phone and start trying to communicate through machine translation. In Japan it’s kind of the opposite – they won’t be the first to start trying with Google Translate. I think they’re quite shy, and maybe a bit embarrassed that they don’t know English. The Chinese seem to want to understand so they jump right in and don’t worry about potentially embarrassing situations.

I actually know a little Chinese so might get by on that and body language, but I also eat vegetarian so often need to explain things a bit more. If I try to say ‘No meat!’ with my few words of Chinese, they might only understand the word ‘meat’ and bring me a meat dish. (In fact that has happened and I was presented with octopus, beef and shrimp. Perfect.) Better to translate what I’m trying to say on the phone.

Most of the time I type what I want to say into the app and then it translates. If the person looks confused then I try writing it again in a slightly different way. Once in a while I use the voice thing where you talk into the phone’s speaker and it translates, but mostly I like the typing better. Somehow with the voice thing I’m less sure if it’s correct or not. Sometimes I use both: first let them read the translated text, then listen to a voice translation.

I also use the Google Translate app in stores to read labels and signs. One of my favorite things to do abroad is to visit local grocery stores, I love spending time in them. And, of course, since I’m often at a destination for several days, I need to buy some very normal, everyday things. Or I might shop for clothing and then I want to good, natural materials. What I use in these situations is that translation app function where I take a photo of a text – a label or a sign – and it tries to translate it for me.

The app has even been helpful at work on occasion. Like when a customer speaks a language I don’t know, or even a dialect of a language that is hard to understand, but they really need something. Then we have sometimes used Google Translate to communicate and resolve their issues.

I would say that my success rate with using apps to communicate with other people is fairly high, maybe 80-100% Usually I get what I want and they understand me, at least I think so. With the picture-taking method I’d say the rate of success is more like 50/50. Sometimes I get a clue what something’s about but sometimes…it’s just random words. The photo thing is just not that good yet.  

I always use English with these machine translation apps. I just think that my own language is not a good language to translate with. It seems to me that English is the key to machine translating. Or should I say it this way: if you understand English, it’s much easier for you to use it.

Eeva’s story: 现在我们出去玩 (Now we’re going out to play)

This is a good time to tell you about how we used Google Translate with our now-6-year-old son because just last week we celebrated the 2-year anniversary of when we went to China to adopt him. He had just turned 4 then.

Before we left for China, I wondered how we’re going to manage to communicate with a little boy who speaks his own language but doesn’t yet know how to read it. And we didn’t know any Chinese. We had a Chinese guide with us on the trip, so I asked him about maybe using Google Translate. He said yes, that could work; he had a similar tool that he used from time to time. He told us the right version of Chinese to use with it and also gave us advice on how to use it. The main thing was to use as simple and short sentences as possible.

We tried it out, typing out our Finnish sentences and then having the app “speak” in Chinese. We considered using spoken Finnish input too, but thought that there might be a bigger chance of mistakes then so we stuck to typing. We did say the sentences out loud in Finnish as we typed so that our son would start to connect what we were saying with what was happening.

Our son is a very responsive child and quickly figured out that the Chinese coming from the phone was telling him something helpful. He would nod and then do what the app told him to do. Or he might answer back ‘No!’ if he didn’t want to do what it was telling him to do (that was a Chinese word we learned quickly). Either way, we knew he understood.

We used this system mostly for things that we couldn’t communicate through hand signals. Things like what is happening and what we’re going to do next: “Mommy is making the food. Then we’ll eat.” Why we’re all getting our clothes on: “Now we’re going outside.” That was important, we didn’t want him to feel confused.

Translation of 'Mommy is making the food. Then we'll eat.' from English to Simplified Chinese

I’d say during the first month we used it 10 times a day. I pretty much had my phone near me at all times, ready to go whenever my son showed signs of being confused or wondering about what’s going on. Every once in a while the app clearly got my sentence wrong so I had to try again, but at least half the time it worked fine on the first try.

How did it affect his learning of Finnish? It’s kind of hard to say because I don’t know what it might have been like without us using Google Translate. But I think it most likely made learning Finnish easier. It was just astounding how quickly he picked it up! Though kids at that age, they tend to learn very quickly.

We didn’t end up using this system very long. We met our son in January and I clearly remember that by March he started to use the Finnish words he knew. We had had an interpreter along for things like doctor visits, and in March he also stopped replying to her in Chinese. I guess he might have thought that Finnish belongs to his new life and positive experiences, so he just made a conscious decision to stop using Chinese. 

I recently asked him if he remembers using the translation app at the beginning. He remembered that it was a woman’s voice (true) and that he understood her every time she spoke (not so sure on that one, he tends to be a bit of an optimist).  

Even though we only used machine translation for that short time, it was a very effective time. It helped us to explain things and what was going on. It was a big help.

Gustav: “With machine translation I can contribute better, also in places where I’m not directly asked.”

For the first several years I lived in Finland, I worked in a large, very international company and English was the main language used. Even though that is not my native language, Swedish is, my English is very good. But a few years ago I changed jobs and my new job is in a truly Finnish company with only 3-4 non-Finns working there. Finnish is not a requirement (luckily, or they wouldn’t have hired me), but of course people are more comfortable with Finnish. I think this is a great thing actually, I see it very much as an opportunity for me to learn Finnish.

Some of the texts I need to deal with at work, e-mails and documentation on the software products we make, are in English half the time and Finnish half the time. There is no strict language policy. Other texts I need to understand are always in Finnish, like human resources kind of information – things like, what’s the company’s travel policy? What is the procedure I need to follow to take parental leave?

My Finnish is OK-ish. I find it hard to follow spoken Finnish. But with written things like e-mails or instructions, I can usually work out the basics of what I need. The problem is when I need to understand the details. Then I can very often get lost. So what I do is use Google Translate to translate the parts that I don’t understand. Sometimes I do it to get confirmation that I have understood things correctly.

I mostly translate from Finnish to English, not Swedish, because generally I find it works better than Finnish-to-Swedish. Every once in a while if the English translation is iffy or I don’t understand it, I might try translating into Swedish.  

I would say that machine translation works surprisingly well. I use it pretty much daily and 80-90% of the times I use it, it gives me the information I need. I actually work with speech and language technology and I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years, there have been amazing advances in machine translation in terms of readability. I have been using it more and more since I noticed this. It helps that I know the general gist of things when I translate a text – I’m confident that I can assess whether the translation makes sense or not.

When it doesn’t work – I don’t understand something I’ve translated – I go back to the original text in Finnish and simplify it. The original might have little mistakes in it that I correct, or I simplify the content and structure a bit. And then I put it through machine translation again. This often helps. When it doesn’t, I either ask a colleague for help or I simply decide that the text is not that important so I ignore it.

Machine translation really helps me in getting the missing pieces from everyday e-mails and documents. I might get an e-mail with a long discussion thread, all in Finnish, and finally someone forwards it to me to see if I can help with the solution. With the help of Google Translate, I can get a better understanding of the thread and the context of the problem, and then I can answer more questions and answer the right questions better.

What would I do if I didn’t have the help of machine translation at work? Well, I would probably be more blind to the context of things. I might end up ignoring some things, and I suppose I might end up being less cooperative in a way. I would get away with being more in the background. With the translation I can contribute better, also in places where I wasn’t directly asked. 

On a larger scale, one thing that surprises me is how little visible impact machine translation has had on businesses. Take web shops – you rarely see web shops from other places in Europe that have their pages machine translated. You rarely see them available in, say, 25 languages. It seems to me that businesses, even small ones, could be selling across Europe more than they are now. Machine translation could help.

Google Translate in a fourth-grade classroom

I teach the fourth grade in a public elementary school in the suburbs of a large U.S. city, and in my classroom I often have a child or two with very limited English skills. These kids are 8 or 9 years old and often here with parents who are stationed temporarily in the U.S. They get daily or weekly time with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, but other than that, they are fully integrated into normal American classrooms.

I use Google Translate with these children in a very focused, need-to-solve-a-problem basis. I have a specific question I need to ask, an instruction I need them to follow, or I need to get information from them. Things like, How are you going home today? Are you going to buy lunch in the cafeteria today or did you bring a lunch? You know, the kinds of daily activities in the life of a classroom.

When I was in the third grade my dad got posted in a foreign country for a year, so I actually know what it’s like for those kids. You’re just sitting there in a fog while everyone around you speaks Russian or some language you can’t grasp. Nowadays I have a tool I can use to help kids in a similar situation through the school day: Now we’re going to do this. This is what you need to do. Those kinds of things are important for their general feeling of well-being, that they can manage the school day.

Julia_GT excerptI sometimes use it in other ways. During writing lessons, I might have a child write in their native language. Then I copy/paste that into Google Translate so I have an idea of what they’ve written. I figure at this stage, writing in your own language is better than trying to write in English. I’ve even tried translating larger blocks of text for a student to read so they can at least know what is being discussed in class.

The languages I’ve dealt with so far are French and Spanish. I had Latin in high school so I can recognize word derivations and root words and can be somewhat assured that what’s been translated is moderately close to what we’re talking about.

When you’re communicating this way, you have to read between the lines a bit. It’s usually so situation-specific that you can get the meaning, but once in a while it takes some back-and-forth questions and answers to narrow things down and get an understanding. Luckily if we hit a dead end, I usually have a backup: a school employee or another child who speaks the student’s language. If that method fails, we can always call the parents to sort things out. At least one of them usually speaks English.

As the kids learn more English, I find myself using machine translation more. I can tell that they are starting to understand me a bit and I want to communicate more. I first say something then I type it into Google Translate. They can see the connection between what I’m saying, what I’m typing, and then what it goes out to in their own language.

I feel like machine translation is a resource that I can use to move to the next step. It really feels like a bridge for understanding.

Whatever else happens, I want these kids to feel like they are understood.

Gary, developer of MT systems

I use Google Translate to translate Chinese spam messages which regularly get posted on my website – just in case any of them are of interest!

Actually most of my interest in MT is not about free online MT tools like Google Translate, but about professional tools. I created my first rule-based MT system over 25 years ago and have been involved in developing machine translation since then. My main project is a commercial neural MT system for translating  between Dutch and English. But I also experiment in neural systems for other languages, most recently Indonesian and Turkish.

Since my own knowledge of Indonesian and Turkish is very poor, I’ve found a use for online MT in this experimental work too. For example, I could translate something into Indonesian with my own engine, then back-translate it through Google into English to see how well my model has learned the patterns of a new language. Other times I simply translate the same thing using both my own and Google’s engines and compare the results. It helps me check that my neural network building is going in the right direction.

I really do also Google-translate Chinese spam messages. The translations are usually very basic but tell me what I want to know about the spam – mostly that this is not something in which I could be remotely interested. Let’s not forget that before the arrival of online MT, companies would spend large sums of money each year translating documents that turned out to be completely useless. Online MT saves money.

In general I’m happy to recommend MT to friends for general information purposes: double-checking the translation of a menu in a Chinese restaurant, translating the instructions sent with self-assembly furniture, or reading spam. Most general online translators are quite capable of fulfilling such tasks nowadays. I also recommend MT as a language learning tool.

However, I would not rely on unchecked, unedited MT for information I need to make important decisions. Apart from the obvious fact that the machine translation may be fluent yet incorrect, we have to allow for the possibility that a decision may be challenged in the courts. (Example case. See MT use in the news for more links to news stories on the use of MT).

One thing I’d like people to understand and remember is that the best results are obtained when the MT system is “trained” to handle the type of texts being translated. In online tools like Google Translate, this is not the case.

Krista, language and communications professional

My English, French and Swedish are all strong and I studied them at the university, but German, Italian and Spanish are languages I haven’t studied since high school. I have a university degree in translation and I worked as a professional translator for some years, but for the past 15 years I’ve been more of a communications professional. I am the Managing Director of a national non-governmental organization and my job consists mostly of communications.

Rich use of Google Translate

I’ve been using Google Translate for many years now. Not in translation work, of course, but for a variety of other things. First of all, I use it to help me make sure I understand texts that are in languages I am not fully fluent in. I read articles, newspaper stories and research papers that have to do with my industry and are in a variety of languages. When I come across a passage I’m not sure I understand, I google-translate it into my native language of Finnish and also into English (usually both, not sure why…maybe curiosity? Or because I love languages?) I also want to know what similar organizations to mine are doing around Europe so I find myself google-translating web pages or other documents to be able to read them.

Sometimes I use the tool to help me when I have to write something in Swedish, which I struggle with a bit. I might write a piece and test it out in Google Translate to make sure I got the phrasing and spelling right. I also test it in regular Google to see if it’s a common way of expressing what I’m trying to express.

I guess the funny thing is that my most frequent use of Google Translate is not really for its translation function. I most often use it as a dictionary. I don’t have a good electronic dictionary at my disposal and I’m a bit lazy about looking things up in books. So I either google the word or use Google Translate to find the meaning. I don’t really look at the translation but down below, where they give dictionary-type information. Here’s an example:

GT dictionary

I like that it gives me multiple suggestions for a translation. I couldn’t ever see myself simply taking the 1 translation it gives in the box and using that. More context helps me make sure I understand.

This also works very well as a thesaurus, a bilingual one at that. It gives you optional synonyms in both languages. And one more thing, a feature I noticed just this year! The megaphone icon at the bottom of the word boxes? That is a pronunciation audio tool.

These kinds of language tools are included in many online dictionaries in different languages, but this is an easy option for multiple languages. Quick.

Oh, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but they want people to help develop Google Translate. I’ve done some volunteering there, mostly in English since that’s the easiest. You click through expressions and words and see if they’re correct or not. It’s kind of a game and helps to develop it. It’s fun.

Double-checking

Google Translate is hardly ever the only thing I use to verify the meaning of a text; normally I double-check it some other way. Even though it’s just for my own use, I work hard to get a good translation.

First of all, I only use it with languages I know well or at least a little. By comparing the original text and the translation, I know enough to know if the translation is something it’s supposed to be. I would never use it with languages like Arabic or Chinese because I would have no way of knowing how ‘right’ the translations are. I also try out translations with different language combinations, often including English somewhere. Because I have background knowledge on how machine translation works, I know that it works best when English is one of the languages used.

Another way I verify things is by putting them into regular Google. If I can see the same phrase and how it’s used in different contexts, then it can help me fully understand it. Usually when this happens it’s because I’m reading things that are not as familiar to me, like academic or technical texts.

The question of machine translation

I don’t go around recommending the use of machine translation to other people, no. Most often that’s because people need a translation for a text they want to give to someone else or publish. Then I recommend that they use a human translator, of course, because that is what is needed. I think it’s important to make sure people understand that. Another reason I don’t do it is that, if I were to recommend it to someone outside of the language industry, I can’t be sure that person understands the limits of machine translation.

If someone asks me for advice on using it, say they just want to understand a short paragraph, then I tell them it is useful for that if they understand the risks involved. But I’ve never recommended it as such.

When I first started using machine translation it was a bit of a shameful thing. The attitude in the translation community was definitely negative. I didn’t dare tell people I was using it. Nowadays it seems more acceptable for the purposes I use it for. I suppose in earlier years, up to 2010, people were afraid that machine translation would take all the work from translators and eventually they wouldn’t be needed. But now I think people understand it’s just a tool that can’t do everything we need humans to do. I noticed the shift in attitude sometime around 2014 or 2015. It was discussed in conferences in a different way and people were much more interested in the topic.