In 2004, three British cabinet members filed an official complaint with Pascal Lamy, the director general of the World Trade Organization who was then serving as the European Commissioner for Trade. According to the Guardian, the letter was the result of an increasingly heated and damning set of accusations regarding the European Union’s translation of patent documents, particularly those related to a new patent law that would allow cheaper generic drugs to reach poor nations.
The document had not yet been translated into all of the at the time 20 official languages of the European Union. “One senior minister said it was ‘scandalous’ that children were dying of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis as a result of bureaucratic failure,” reported the journal. “We believe this translation should be a priority.”
Flash forward a decade later and the speed of patent translation in the European Union remains a considerable challenge for both government officials and private industry. However, a recent development in machine translation may have finally paved the road to a brighter — that is, cheaper and faster-working — European Union patent system.
Google and Patent Translate
The European Patent Office (EPO) announced last month that Patent Translate is now complete. Patent Translation is a machine translation engine that has been optimized for the unique style, format, terminology, and grammar of patent and patent-related documents. Launched in Februrary 2012, this free service is the result of a cooperation between EPO, patent offices of the 38 member states, and Google.
At launch, it was already covering about 90 percent of patents issued in Europe with translations from and into English for French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Swedish. The plan, originally targeted for the end of this year, was to include all of the official languages of the European Union.
Completed one year ahead of schedule, Patent Translate covers 32 languages: all 28 official languages plus the three most trade-important Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) and Russian. The EPO reports that Patent Translate is already processing around 12,000 requests daily. All private, of course — that was one part of the Google-agreement that the EPO was also sure to report, so that those searching for patents and patent-related materials or translating them could rest assured that they were doing so without that information being stored.
The EU Translation Burden
This is just a fraction of the entire translation burden that is part of the European Union pact. While three languages — English, French, and German — serve as the unofficial procedural languages of the European Commission, all of its 28 languages are its official languages.
Some wish that were not so. Last year, German president Joachim Gauck was reported as almost wistfully stating that English should be the European Union’s official language. He was not forcefully rebuked. While most officials agree that the commitment to multilingualism is one of the strengths of the European Union, most also acknowledge that translation has hard and high costs in time, labor, and euros.
As we have noted before, the European Union institutions constitute the largest translation organization and the largest translation client in the world, spending over € 1 billion per year, or roughly € 2.20 per EU citizen per year. Figures released in 2013 by the Translation Directorate General of the European Commission showed that some 1.8 million pages were translated by its office alone in the year before. And that is just one of the many central and state-based offices of the European Union that are responsible for translation and interpretation, and its translators and interpreters.
Machine Translation to the Rescue?
Perhaps needless to say, no machine translation service can replace professionally trained, native-speaking translators, no matter the subject matter. The EPO even points this out in response to one of its frequently asked questions about Patent Translate.
The machine translation should give you the gist of any patent or patent-related document, and help you to determine whether it is relevant. You might decide on this basis whether you need to invest in a human translation of the document.
That is to say, as an alternative to human translation alone, machine translation is a cost- and time-saving saving tool for moving patent translation forward as quickly as possible. Perhaps it will help save lives too.