Patent Translation

Domenico Lombardini

Domenico Lombardini is founder and CEO of ASTW, an Italian LSP specializing in the intellectual property (patents and trademarks), legal, medical and scientific sectors. He has a BS in biological sciences.

Domenico Lombardini
Domenico Lombardini

Domenico Lombardini

Domenico Lombardini is founder and CEO of ASTW, an Italian LSP specializing in the intellectual property (patents and trademarks), legal, medical and scientific sectors. He has a BS in biological sciences.


ears ago, my full-time freelance patent translation career in full swing, people were inevitably surprised when I told them I translated patents all day long. I remember how befuddled they were. “But aren’t you a biologist?” they asked. “And are there really that many patents to translate?” Well, my answer was always fairly predictable.

In Italy and other countries in Europe, patents need to be translated in order to be validated — that is, to be valid in the country in question. With the London Agreement (dated May 1, 2008), a number of countries ratified rules to streamline procedures relating to the translation of European patents. According to this agreement, which is optional for member states of the European Patent Convention, signatories waive their right to require mandatory translation of European patents as a necessary step to validate patents in their country. The agreement establishes that member states using one of the three official languages of the European Patent Convention (EPO) — namely French, English, and German — no longer require translation into their own language at the time of national validation. The other member states, whose official language is a language other than French, English, or German, have the right to request translation of a European patent into any one of the three official EPO languages of their choosing, with only the translation of claims being required in their country’s own official language.

To date, the London Agreement has been signed by 13 EPO member states. As of May 1, 2008, it is no longer necessary to translate European patents for validation in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Monaco, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein, while in Croatia, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Netherlands, Slovenia, and Sweden only translation of claims is required in the national language. In all other countries, the translation of the entire patent text is still required.

The correct and accurate translation of a patent is, therefore, a bottleneck for the purposes of giving it legal value in the countries concerned. Over the years, this discrete sector has afforded me the opportunity to acquire and hone valuable linguistic and technical skills (think of computer-aided translation tools and machine translation). Such experience primed me to tackle the typical patent jargon of any technology sector, from biotechnology to mechanics, from organic chemistry to information technology. Conceivably, my scientific training combined with a certain stubbornness for detail have allowed me to fill in any linguistic and technical gaps, enabling me, over time, to handle disparate topics.

However, just to take a step back, what exactly is a patent?

The patent: Legal lexicon, technical knowledge

A patent is a legal title under which the owner is granted an exclusive right of economic exploitation of an invention in a country for a set period of time. It prevents others from manufacturing, marketing, or using the invention without authorization. The word patent comes from the Latin word patere, which means “to lay open,” or in other words, to make available for public inspection.

From a macro-textual point of view, a patent consists of two fundamental elements: description and final set of claims. The description, which is the most substantial part, is in turn made up of the background, summary of the invention, and detailed description thereof. The second portion of the patent, the set of claims, defines and delimits the scope of protection of the patent in an unequivocal yet succinct manner. In terms of volume, the text of a patent can range from a few thousand words to more than 100,000 words, depending on the technique sector and type of patent. Well, many people may lick their chops with delight upon hearing about such volumes! Regretfully, these volumes come with relatively low per-word rates, which, at first glance, could be discouraging to many people. But let’s not despair. Thanks to computer-aided translation (CAT) tools, termbases, and machine translation (MT) — especially those already populated with patent data — it is possible to make of patent translation a very lucrative business. This is true notwithstanding the relatively low rates. 

But what critical issues are encountered when dealing with translating patent texts? First and foremost, it is necessary to know the jargon of patents. These are words and expressions used in the intellectual property (IP) sector that must be translated appropriately, just as if they were written by a patent attorney. Secondly, it is essential to stay true to the original text, replicating, as far as possible, the syntactic structure of the text and avoiding, for example, the use of synonyms. The consistency between source and target texts, at the lexical, morphological, and syntactic level, must be as unambiguous as possible.

However, in terms of translation, some patent texts can be decidedly more difficult precisely because they stand at the technological forefront of a particular sector at particular time. Thus, it is sometimes difficult, if not almost impossible, to find the appropriate terminology and fully understand the original text in all of its constituent parts. To reassure any translator who may want to give patent translation a try, let me point out that such challenging cases are few and far between, and that it is always possible, in the face of a serious impasse during translation, to seek the advice of a real “skilled in the art” person — in other words, a technical expert who will certainly be able to clear away any doubts and suggest correct terminology. Over time and with daily practice, it will become obvious that despite the wide range of subjects, patent texts, no matter how seemingly disparate, share similarities on how they should be approached for translation.

Patent translation: Controlled language and automation

It is impossible to know everything about any one thing. No one can have knowledge in computer science, biochemistry, organic chemistry, mechanics, and electronics so extensive as to make any related translation effortless. You cannot expect a human translator to be innately able to manage a rich variety of lexicons, terminological worlds, and expressive ways so far apart from one another. However, there is a translation sector in which the translator is required to have familiarity with an array of sectors in virtually any and all technological and scientific field having a potential industrial impact. This is, indeed, the world of patent translation. Some indulge in high-sounding expressions such as “the art of translating patents” or “the craft of patent translation,” but emphasis and rhetoric aside, it is undeniable that the translation of patents is an oft-difficult task, sometimes pushing the very limits of one’s translation skills. This is because the technology that is the subject of a patent is itself at the forefront of technology, as previously mentioned. Hence, it is difficult to find reliable terminological sources to draw from to translate a patent. Luckily, such cases are few and far between, and the use of termbases, of validated translation memories (TMs), and of MT is, most of the time, more than enough to complete a flawless patent translation from any point of view.

A patent text, if written correctly, is a classic example of controlled natural language. Controlled language has the aim of reducing the ambiguity and complexity of a text, simplifying grammar, and consolidating its lexicon as far as possible. Controlled language encodes a set of rules that helps the writer who is processing the text in terms of syntax, semantics, and structure. Therefore, the purpose of controlled language is to improve:

  • Legibility and clarity: the structural and lexical ambiguities in the text are considerably reduced by establishing rules that themselves limit the possibility of incurring syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic ambiguities at the time the document is drawn up.
  • Editability: any text that is easier to read and understand is also easier to update because the structure of the document is more easily recognizable.

It is easy to understand that such a text, by virtue of its extremely simplified, unambiguous, and often redundant structure, becomes an ideal text to be processed automatically. And, indeed, it is. For example, at times, the use of CAT tools and termbases significantly increases the speed of the translation process, thanks to leverageable full and fuzzy matches from within the same patent text and from previous translation projects. In fact, it often happens that the patent texts of one particular inventor or company have similar or sometimes identical segments, and this is an obvious advantage in terms of speed as well as ability to maintain intratextual and intertextual terminological consistency. Over time, it will be possible to accumulate large sector-specific TMs — for example, memories for biotech, mechanic, construction, chemistry sectors — and those TMs can be leveraged to train machine translation engines.

Sunglasses resting on a stack of books on the beach

The patent translation market

In Europe, the patent market — and by extension patent translation — has been growing over the last five years. In 2018 alone, 147,317 patent applications were submitted to the European Patent Office. And Italy, with 4,399 applications and a growth of 0.9% compared to 2017, ranks sixth in number of requests among EPO Member States.

We do not know if the current pandemic will have a negative effect on the global validation processes. From our vantage point at ASTW (we translate approximately two million patent words every month), we have not seen any decrease. Indeed, we have recorded an appreciable increase in requests from our clients. During a pandemic, it is reasonable to expect an increase in patents and related validations (and, therefore, translations) in discrete sectors such as medical and biotech, as well as sectors relating to cellular communications and information technology. It is also reasonable to experience a decrease of requests in other industries.

The most active technical sectors in recent years have been those that involve new technologies, and, namely biotechnology, digital communication, information technology, energy, and transport, and the largest presence on the market is registered by large multinationals (which represent a 71% market share), with Siemens, Huawei, and Samsung being the predominant applicants in 2018.
A significant figure emerges from a large representative sample of patent applications submitted to the EPO: in 2018, one in five applications were submitted by SMEs or individual inventors.

In this scenario, and in light of current relevant legislation, in order to protect the intellectual property of an invention in industrialized countries, an applicant must involve all of the countries in which they would
like to obtain a patent. Therefore, it is easy to under-stand how translation costs are a determining factor
in the validation procedure. It often happens that the costs to be incurred for the translation of a patent exceed the patent filing costs, and it is for this reason that the fees generally paid to LSPs and translators are relatively low. However, by leveraging CAT tools and MT, an expert patent translator can make patent translation profitable and professionally lucrative
and fulfilling.

Quality is what matters

To ensure the quality of each patent translation, we have established a workflow over the years that has enabled us to be confident about the quality of our patent translations.

For the purpose of increasing translator productivity, we have long included MT in our workflow. All of our translators and patent reviewers, both freelance and in-house, are essentially post-editors. A critical factor in the quality of the output of the automatic trans-lation engines was to identify a quality MT solution
that could be trained with our patent translation memories and learn the terminology and style of each of our translations. The solution we chose was ModernMT. ModernMT, which was developed by the Italian company Translated, leverages neural MT and relies on the context of the entire document in order to predict and provide a better translation for every sentence. In addition, the model learns in real time from each correction made by translators. We determined that ModernMT offered us better quality (less post-editing effort by post-editors), with a consequent increase in the productivity and quality of our linguists’ work. Under normal conditions, for example, an expert linguist can translate up to 6,000 or even 7,000 words per day — if not more, for example, in the case of structurally simple and repetitive texts — with the use of a CAT tool and working as a post-editor on an output of an MT trained with patent data.

The importance of linguist training

To be a good patent translator, however, it is not enough just to use technology, automatic translation, and CAT tools. Indeed, these tools must be handled by an expert hand. The training of patent translators is, therefore, critically important. For this reason, we provide our linguists with revolving, on-the-job training, consisting of courses and continuous feedback on their work from more experienced colleagues. In fact, we have shown that experience in the field together with the use of validated terminological sources (and also of automatic translation) greatly shortens the learning curve of novice patent translators. On average, after six months of full-time patent translation, we can be quite confident that a budding patent translator has mastered the basics of translating patents well.

It is still necessary for in-training translators to be mentored by a more experienced linguist for at least six more months, but, generally, the post-work feedback is good because translators have many resources at their disposal in case of doubts. Moreover, in our experience, the help offered by MT is significant, especially if trained with its own patent data. The MT output will not only offer terminology that is most probably appropriate, but the translation style is also generally adopted and validated in-house

for the translation of these texts. Furthermore, the personal help provided by colleagues and teamwork are very important for the professional growth of patent translators. Creating a positive and collaborative business environment is, therefore, of the essence, although this precondition is sometimes overlooked in many companies where competitive behaviors prevail to the detriment of productive teamwork. In the patent translation sector, the know-how garnered at the personal and company level is the core condition upon which the appropriate workflow is built, enabling us to guarantee our customers quality, speed, and capacity.