Posted by: patenttranslator | March 18, 2011

Machine Translation and Human Translation of Japanese Patents Revisited Yet Again

About every fifth order for translating a patent from Japanese to English that I receive these days from a law firm is accompanied by a machine translation of the Japanese document. At first I was a little puzzled by this, but I no longer am. Since all unexamined Japanese patents applications published after 1993 can be translated with a machine translation function which can be used on the Japan Patent Office (JPO) website with an English interface, it makes sense to spend a few minutes on the Web to create a machine translation (MT) product for free before ordering a human translation (HT) which will cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. I used to and sometime still do receive also English abstracts produced by JPO, which are written by human translators whose first language is clearly Japanese (the English in these abstracts is sometime understandable to me only when I compare it to the Japanese original). It takes about half a year before these English abstracts, called “Patent Abstracts of Japan”, (or  PAJ), are available for new patent applications.

Human translation is thus a third source of information about Japanese patent applications available in English, after MT and PAJ, a relatively very expensive source, especially considering that both MT and PAJ are free to any user.

Why is human translation still needed? After all, it would seem that there is already a lot of information available in English for free. Is it possible, or perhaps even likely or inevitable, that as machine translation keeps being improved, the demand for human translation will be decreased and eventually eliminated?

I don’t think it is likely at all. Although MT has been available on the JPO website for about 15 years, as far as I can tell the quality of the MT product has not improved much during that time if it changed at all. The MT product is a very useful source of information, but it is not really a translation in the real sense of the word, merely a result of a computational conversion of words in one language to words in another languages based on certain rules and algorithms which do not take into account the real meaning of the words because meaning is a category (a function of human thinking) that cannot be reduced to rules and algorithms.

Nevertheless, I usually print out a machine translation before I start my work on a real translation. I look at the MT product quite a bit when I start translating because at that point I am still trying to establish the correct terminology and I often don’t really understand what the Japanese document is describing. At the beginning, confusion often reigns in the mind of this human translator, and the MT product can sometime help to ease this confusion. But as I start to understand the description of the problem that is to be solved by the patent, I usually only look at the Japanese text and occasionally at my computer display without looking at the MT product  at all because looking at a third source would unnecessarily slow me down and time is precious to me. However, I still look at the MT product one more time when I proofread my finished translation at the end, usually the next day, because the most common mistakes human translators make and computers almost never do are omissions such as skipping a number or a line, or even a paragraph.

One could say that machine translation has already become another useful tool, which is available not only to patent lawyers who can use MT before they decide to spend a lot of their client’s money to have a certain document really translated, but also to this human translator who can use it just like a dictionary, or as an online source of information like an online dictionary or Wikipedia.

This function of MT as a very useful tool is an aspect that is almost never mentioned in articles that are published every now and then in newspapers because these articles are written by authors who do not really understand the issues involved, and who usually simply describe juicy anecdotal evidence obtained from users of MT, seasoned with unhealthy propaganda from  MT developers, without bothering to talk to real translators who actually may know a lot about MT because they understand the issues and because they are using MT all the time in their work. A typical example of such an article is linked here in my previous post on this subject.

There were two very interesting articles examining among other things issues relating to machine translation and human translation in the January 2011 issue of The Chronicle, a newsletter of the American Translators Association. One, written by Nicholas Hartmann, is titled Real Voices: What Translators Do and Why We Need to Keep Doing It. The other article, written by Michael Karpa and called Translating in the Deep End, also deals to some extent with machine translation.

Both of these articles are quite long but well worth reading. Because I want to keep my posts relatively short, I will not try to add my attempt at an analysis of these two articles here, other than to mention the obvious contrast between both of these articles and the nonsense that is often published in our “mainstream media” on the subject of machine translation by people who don’t know anything about translation and don’t seem to care about it at all. A major newspaper publishing an article about machines translation, such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, should be able find somebody who either is a translator, or who is at least smart enough to realize that he needs to talk to translators to write an article about something like that. But perhaps I am asking too much. These people probably think that most translators have been already “eliminated” by MT.

It is a pity that the public at large will probably never read a useful analysis of what MT really is and what it can never be.

Instead, they will be probably subjected yet again to another unhealthy dose of commercial propaganda from MT vendors, sprinkled with total lack of understanding of the underlying issues and thinly veiled contempt for human translators in the next article about machine translation that is likely to be published soon again in the dead tree media. But based on what has been published so far, the article will have a lot of really funny stories about hilarious machine translations and it will also say that Google Translate changed everything (they all do). Google translate is a very useful tool but it changed everything. Human translation is in a different category than machine translation and probably always will be. Very few of us know that thanks to what passes for journalism these days.


  1. Translators play a vital role in any business. They help in conveying the information precisely from one language to another in various countries across the globe. These translators offer different services. Usually, translators deal with written communication.Globalization is the trend today and hence, it becomes extremely important to get your global facts and language right while planning to expand your educational or professional horizon. While English is the accepted language in most of the world, it is always good to have a command over one more international language to take you to the heights you aspire to reach.


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