Posted by: patenttranslator | August 9, 2011

Machine Translation Dependency Syndrome

I developed an incipient carpal tunnel syndrome (CPTS) a few months ago after two or three weeks of nonstop typing during a particularly hectic translating schedule. It was mostly the left thumb that was hurting because I tend to hit the space bar too hard when I am in a trance as I am trying to make sense in English out of things that don’t really make a whole lot of sense in Japanese or another language. CPTS went away after a while, but I still feel some pain in the thumb when I am lifting weights in the gym. I have to remember not to hit that damn space bar so hard.

I think that I am also developing a new type of syndrome that as far as I know has not been identified yet in scientific literature, which means that I have to give it a name myself.

I hereby call it machine translation dependency syndrome, or MTDS.

The thing is, since I can usually find a machine translation for most patents that I am translating from Japanese or German on the JPO (Japan Patent Office), EPO (European Patent Office) or WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) website, I usually print out a machine translation before I start translating. Most of the time I look at the machine translation only in the beginning during the stage when I am still identifying various technical terms. Once I understand what the patent is about, I usually don’t look at the machine translation much because it would just slow me down, except when I get stuck on a strange term again. When a patent application is too old or too new, no machine translation is available and all I have is Internet, Google and dictionaries, which was the case today.

There was a term consisting of two Japanese words that I could not figure out because they could mean a number of things in the context of wireless communications and I could not decide what to use in English. First I tried the JPO website and I found two (only two!) patents on it in Japanese with this exact formulation, but unfortunately, there were no English summaries. Then I searched the WIPO website in Japanese and there were no hits. I also tried to Google the term in Japanese and there was not a single hit, which I thought was very strange.

Machine translations of patents are often very useful to this patent translator because even when the machine translation is wrong (and it is wrong about half the time), it can point me in the right direction as machine translation is essentially based on the principle of Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is a principle attributed to a 14th century Franciscan friar by the name of William of Occam. It basically says that when there are too many possible explanations for something, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one and the more complicated ones are usually incorrect. It is often used in science and it comes in handy also in other fields such as politics (for example, Occam’s razor says that when a politician insists “It’s not about the money”, it’s about the money).

Since I don’t have a machine translation of these two Japanese words, I have no idea what a machine would think that they mean. And they seem to exist because I found two Japanese patents on the JPO website with this exact combination of words in them. On the other hand, it could easily be a coincidence because I found only two such patent applications, there was nothing on the WIPO website and Google also found nothing.

It seems that I am (temporarily) lost without a machine translation. So I wrote my English solution on a post-it note and I will have to figure out what to do with it later. I will probably eventually change the words. The problem is, of course, that this term is not explained in the patent, which it should be.

I miss my inarticulate but often amazing machine translations, even when they are wrong half the time, because this also means that they are right about half the time and I could have used a second opinion from a machine today. I wonder how many other people suffer from the same machine translation dependency syndrome that I am afflicted with now. I know that unlike Americans, people in other countries use machine translation all the time to get an idea about the content of web pages in a foreign language because I see machine translations of my posts on my WordPress dashboard every now and then (two posts on this blog were translated into Japanese today). These people must be suffering from the same syndrome as well when they come across something that machines have not translated yet or refuse to translate, as I did today.

I am pretty sure that the machine translation dependency syndrome will be eventually recognized as a treatable disease by the pharmaceutical industry and Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Eli Lily or GlaxoSmithKline will come up with a magic pill which costs only about two hundred dollars a month, and which basically takes care of this syndrome and has only a few minor side effects, including but not limited to: diarrhea, constipation, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, insomnia, nausea and dry mouth, as well as unexplained itching to say what one means and the inability to do so.


  1. I liked the music very much. Help me with original sample. I just cant remember where is it from! Ontopic> Currently the state of machine translation is such that it involves some human intervention, as it requires a pre-editing and a post-editing phase. Note that in machine translation, the translator supports the machine and not the other way around.


  2. 1. This music (Pretty Lights) was suggested to me for my blog by my son. He said it is perfect for relaxing, so I put it on my blog because it is really very interesting.
    Sorry, I don’t know anything else about it, other than that this music video now has now more than four million hits on Youtube.

    2. What I am saying in a number of posts on my blog is that the current state of MT has not changed much in the last 70 years or so and it is likely to stay that way for at least the next 70 years.


  3. If your claim is true then….

    1) Why do translators use MT far more than 10 years ago?

    2) Why are so many translators freaking out about the (real) threat of MT when it was a tiny issue 10 years ago?

    Human translation will be toast in just a few years.

    Many translators now realize this even if many are still in denial.

    Editing has a very bright future.


  4. Jeb:

    I don’t know how to answer your questions. God knows I tried. It did not work.

    But it’s good to know you still read my blog.


  5. I think the two questions above are straight forward.

    If there has been no improvement in MT then why do have so many translator blogs down played the threat starting around 2009? Why is it such a hot topic at conferences?

    Something to ponder.


  6. 1. Straightforward is one word. Most people know that. There is a difference between straight forward and straightforward.

    2. Downplayed is one word. Most people know that.

    Are you a native speaker of English?

    Did you finish high school?

    Something to ponder.


  7. Look back at your recent post.

    Did you know that “altho” is spelled “although”?

    I assume you do and that you made a typo.

    You can’t answer important questions about your own field so you point out typos.

    Have you heard of “small minded”?

    Or is it “small-minded” ?


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