Risk in Any Language: Reducing the Often-Overlooked IP Risks Associated with Translating Patents



A German company was looking to expand into the $10 billion U.S. pesticide market. That is, until its English translator incorrectly translated the German word “schnecke” (meaning both “snail” and “slug” in German) into just “snail” in English on the company’s patent application for a pesticide aimed primarily at slugs. As a result, another company picked up the patent for the slug pesticide and the German company saw its opportunity for a greater share of a new market slip away.

If your company is global—or wants to be—translating patent applications into different languages is going to be a necessary step. One mistranslated word, as simple as the difference between “slug” and “snail,” can result in millions of dollars in lost revenue. For most global enterprises, protecting intellectual property is big business and part of that protection is making sure every document is accurately translated and localized. In fact, some multinational enterprises have annual translation budgets exceeding $10 million. Translation is also a major expense of the international patent filing process, accounting for nearly 40% of international prosecution costs.
To translate patent applications, these enterprises have traditionally relied on law firms around the world to work with individual translators. But today, many of the world’s largest patent filers are now consolidating patent work to fewer law firms. This requires that the firms oversee a larger number of disconnected in-country translation service providers, which often leads to increased errors and risks.

Considering what is at stake, it is increasingly important for risk managers to evaluate their organization’s translation service to ensure that it is providing the most accurate and secure patent translations in the most efficient manner.

So what qualities should a company be looking for? There are five key elements that can help a global enterprise eliminate—or at least reduce—the risks associated with patent translations:

1. Specialized Personnel
Every person who comes in contact with a patent should, to a large extent, be specialized in the target language, the technical nature of the patent and the filing requirements of each individual country. Ideally, the translators should be native speakers of the target language with advanced degrees in language translation or linguistics, and have knowledge of the various technical fields. They should also keep up to date with the terminology and developments relevant to the customer market segments in question and understand multinational patent translation requirements and rigid translation and documentation processes. This ensures that a company receives the most accurate, specialized, secure and timely translations.

2. Centralized Processes
Even with all the latest technologies on the market, some patent firms still continue with the inefficient and often frustrating decentralized model comprising dozens of translation teams around the globe—each managed locally, without coordinated project management or cross-team collaboration. This often leads to higher costs, increased human errors, lower productivity and a general absence of transparency in project advancement and deadlines. Service providers that consolidate translation tasks from independent teams and agents to interactive teams that report to the project owners at the company streamline the translation process and reduce costs since translations are produced by fewer employees and external agents.

3. Terminology Management
Establishing a common terminology database across all countries and languages relevant to the enterprise prior to translation is vital to improving quality, timing and expense control. Without this, the risk of patent errors and omissions is increased. Translation providers should be willing to coordinate development of glossaries and dictionaries, research and develop terminology databases, and edit, review and update terminology on a consistent basis. They should then integrate these terminology databases into their systems, and develop and implement style guides.

4. Quality Control
In any type of translation, quality is defined as the degree to which the work product achieves the purpose for which it is created. When talking about increasing quality in IP translation, quality can be measured by technical and scientific accuracy. This can have certain specific benefits, including fewer U.S. Patent and Trademark Office actions related to translation or clarity problems, reduced time to grant, the absence of opposition or invalidation due to translation and clarity issues, and a reduced total cost of ownership.

There are a variety of quality standards and certifications that translators can receive, including:

EN 15038 Global Certification: This certifies the translation process according to the European and German standard. It demonstrates a translation company’s effort to establish the best procedures for creating a high-quality translation. The standard defines the requirements of the translation service provider in regards to personnel and technical resources, quality control, project management, client contract parameters, and management methods for providing service.

SAE J2450: This translation quality metric was established by SAE International for the automotive industry.

LISA: This quality assurance model is designed to promote the best translation and localization methods for the software and hardware industries. While the Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA) is no longer active, their standardization methods are still widely used as the benchmark for quality translations.

ATA Metric: This method was developed by the American Translators Association to be used as an evaluation tool to test the quality of a translated text. A “strong” or “standard” score on the text correlates with an International Language Roundtable (ILR) Professional Performance Level 4 or 5, respectively, which indicates the highest level of professional performance for a translator.

5. Advanced Technology
There is an ongoing debate about whether humans or machines should be translating documents, but with patents, humans win every time. Only humans can fully understand the nuances of the target languages. However, this does not mean that technology should not play a significant role in patent translations. While the specifics are not important, there are a few general translation-related technologies that can ensure greater accuracy and quality for patents.

For example, translation memory software allows translators to reuse and leverage past translations. This saves time and cost for both translators and the enterprises.

Terminology management software ensures the integrity of existing terminology and builds new terminology databases for individual language translation projects. This software can capture terms and track thesource of the term, the date the term was entered, who entered it and other related information. Some can even suggest terminology “on the fly” and update new terminology databases while translation occurs.

Translation workflow management systems recognize the source languages, target languages, document attributes and other project-specific items, and will automatically associate the source files with the most pertinent translation memories and dictionaries.

Project management tools enable project managers and team leaders in a global, distributed work environment to work collaboratively and effectively on translation projects. They can also schedule and track each project task from beginning to end, so all parties know the status of each project at any given time.

By ensuring that your translation service providers meet these five criteria, you will help reduce your enterprise’s risks, increase the value per patent translated and protect your intellectual property throughout the patent filing process.


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About the Author

Lyle Ball is the chief operating officer of MultiLing, a translation service provider specializing in intellectual property and technical material translations.



  • Mick Geary

    Actually the translation was correct. A "Nacktschnecke" is a slug and therefore the interpreter/translater made no mistake.

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