European Patent Office MT system project

A recent post on the European Machine Translation mailing list from Jim Calvert of the UK Patent and Trademark office suggests that the European Patent Office (EPO) is embarking on a “very ambitious” project to use machine translation to speed up and lower the price of European patent processing. There’s no official information about this on the EPO site, but the word is obviously out. Two comments:

1. There was a lot of press coverage in 2003 of the linguistic problems at EPO (not an EU institution by the way) in their attempt to fulfill the trilingual translation requirements (ENG, FR, GERM) for certain patent documents filed with the organization. The problem was that the cost of translating patent documents made a Euro patent vastly more expensive than filing it elsewhere in the industrial world.

A Member of European Parliament said, “It is indeed true that the language problems are considerable. The average cost of a patent is about € 30,000, much higher than in the United States, and that is because 40% of those costs are taken up by language problems – the translation costs – and we are trying to get to grips with that problem.”

This from the life science industry shows how widely criticized EPO policy was: “The BioIndustry Association, the trade association for UK bioscience companies, has called for a simple and cost effective patent system for Europe to compete with those of the US and Japan. The existing European Patent system has its advantages but is expensive and complex, on average a patent for eight countries is estimated at € 50,000. This is largely due to translation requirements, as the claims of a European Patent must be translated into English, French and German at the grant stage. In most member states it must be translated into the language of that state to give the patent effect, with local registration fees added later.”

So a new project for an automated solution might be expected to lower the cost of translation in the longer term. It would be good to set some specific targets: say reduce translation costs by 50% (to 20% of the overall cost) in five years or so, so that people in Europol and other multilingual organizations with large translation throughput could gain from the experience.

2. Why is the invitation to join the project primarily targeted at universities? Europe has a splendid stable of MT companies with operational systems (Systran, ESTeam, SDL, Synthema, Linear B, Thamus, ProMT etc) which combine different approaches to the translation problem with a variety of language pairs. No one need be surprised about quality concerns in MT any longer – any solution would naturally need rigorous customizing and fine-tuning to address the highly technical domains in question. But it would be a pity if, instead of building a powerful, scalable infrastructure that could rapidly integrate these existing commercial suppliers, with their practical experience of rule bases, corpus tools and workflow, the EPO decided to start yet another very long term MT project from scratch.

Maybe they should first go and see Cross Language, Europe’s only fully-fledged translation automation integrator for a little advice!

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Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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