Patents protect your innovations and drive competitive advantage, especially in the global marketplace. But patents aren’t global. That’s why patent translation is so significant for businesses seeking to grow internationally. 

As Intellectual Property rights granted by a government, a patent only tends to cover a certain (usually national) territory. 

So, if you want your patents to protect your business’s international future, you need to apply to each nation’s patent office in their national language. And this is where problems arise… 

Because translating a patent is tough. Even the smallest error can invalidate the document, making it useless as legal protection. 

Let’s start demystifying the patent translation process, exploring its importance and the value it creates for businesses around the world: 

What is a patent translation?

Patent Translation is the process of converting patent documentation from one language to another while accurately preserving the legal and technical terminology. 

This is vital. Because a patent is often the only legal protection an inventor or business has to prevent other people from copying, selling, or making use of their idea. 

To qualify for a patent, an invention needs to be “novel”, “useful”, and “operable”. It also can’t be one of a list of unpatentable things, such as a “law of nature” or “fundamental truth”. 

The translation of a patent could actually involve converting a range of linked documents, including those relating to: 

  • Patent applications 
  • Patent specifications 
  • Patent claims 
  • Legal correspondence 
  • Internal communications 

The process of translating a patent isn’t simple though. The specificity of the often very technical and legal language requires exceptional skill on the part of the linguists involved. 

What is the importance of patent translation? 

Innovation drives value creation in businesses. By protecting that value, patent translations allow a business to achieve: 

1) Global expansion 

Accessing international markets is one of the most effective ways to increase profits. 

But if you want to go international, you need your most innovative products, services, and ideas to be protected so they can continue to generate value. 

Translated patents link together the different countries, regions, and jurisdictions you operate in. They let you leverage the full power of your company’s Intellectual Property as you expand globally. 

2) Legal compliance 

Different countries (and regions such as the European Union) have specific legal requirements for patents. This is true for permissible language and format and the application process too. 

For instance, in Japan, once you have filed your international patent application, a translation needs to be received by the Japanese patent office within two months. 

But with high-quality translations of their patents filed in the right places, businesses that operate internationally know they are fully compliant with local laws. 

3) Market protection 

Not translating your patents for major markets you aren’t planning on entering comes with risks attached too. 

Imagine a local competitor who is free to steal your ideas and create knock-off versions of your products or processes because your patents don’t function in that local territory. 

One important function of patent translation is to ensure businesses can withstand any infringement on their Intellectual Property rights from global competitors who: 

  • Siphon off customers via lower-cost, lower-quality alternatives 
  • Impact the returns of your genuine partners in other regions 
  • Damage the international reputation of your brand or products 

4) Business growth 

A firm that knows the value of its most innovative practices and products and acts to protect them hugely enhances its business prospects and revenue generation. 

This is partly because investors and businesses looking for a reliable partner want to know that that partner will be able to protect its most valuable assets. 

Any value that is leached out of the system because the proper legal protections are not in place makes a firm a less attractive potential partner or investment. 

Challenges and considerations in patent translation 

For all their value, it would be a mistake not to underline the main considerations and challenges of patent translation. These include: 

1) Complex legal terminology and format 

Patents are not your average texts. They are complicated legal documents with required formats. Like many such documents, the terminology used is unique to this specific context. 

To translate a patent requires a translator who is not only a master of both source and target languages but also a legal expert in the target jurisdiction. 

This is not a common combination. But working with any other kind of linguist risks undermining the very purpose of a legal document like a patent in the first place. 

2) Translation approach and consistency 

When translating many texts – marketing, for instance – things like tone and cultural context are very important to retain across a language barrier. 

The goal is usually to preserve the sense and feel of the original text. The precise words used are normally less important than the meaning that is conveyed. 

The same isn’t true in patent translation. Every phrase must usually be translated very directly. So must any notes or diagrams, formulae, or annotations that are part of the original document. 

The objective is to accurately and comprehensively describe the invention or innovation in its entirety. This requires high-level linguistic skill. 

Trying to ensure that this approach is consistent across all language versions is even more challenging. It almost always necessitates the use of a specialist translation company. 

3) Technical complexity of subject matter 

The vast majority of patents deal with complicated technical subjects. For example, imagine a patent governing a new material used in jet engines or a manufacturing process. 

Even a native speaker might struggle with this level of very specific jargon and technical terminology. 

This means that on top of requiring a linguist who is an expert on at least one legal code and two languages, you also need someone who is deeply knowledgeable about a particular subject. 

This sometimes means a small team of highly skilled professional translators will work on a patent project with extensive oversight. 

Best practices for patent translation

1) Use professional translators 

Patent translation is not a field where you can use non-professional, non-specialist linguists and expect success. 

The requirements in terms of technical, linguistic, and legal knowledge are too complex. The stakes – the international future of a company – are very high. 

If the continuing validity of a patent and the protection it offers are important to you, use a professional from a Language Service Provider (LSP) with a history of patent expertise. 

If you want to try to minimise your patent filing costs, using a non-specialist is not the way to do it. Instead, consider getting quotes from multiple LSPs with expertise in patents.  

2) Start planning as soon as possible 

The patent application process can take a great deal of time. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for it to take 18 months or more. Other jurisdictions are faster. Some are even slower. 

This means the planning of the patent application process (including translating the patents in line with local requirements and norms) should begin as soon as you identify a target market. 

You don’t want projects or launches to be delayed because you don’t have the right legal protections in place for your IP. 

3) Perfect your source (English) text first 

Every country has its own legal requirements for the patent application process. Success is not guaranteed. 

One of the most common causes of failure to secure a patent in a non-domestic market is translation error. But blame is often laid at the feet of an ambiguous English original. 

In fact, recent research published in The Journal of International Business Policy shows that ambiguous original English patents reduce the likelihood of a successful grant by 25%. 

It is worth taking the time to have your original English language patent reviewed before you start the translation process. 

4) Put in place rigorous Quality Assurance processes 

The importance of ensuring the accuracy of translated patents cannot be understated. 

No matter the LSP you decide to use, ask about their Quality Assurance processes. Inaccurate translation of patents can lead to: 

  • Theft of key ideas, products, and services with little legal recourse 
  • Increased competition from local businesses 
  • Legal action if you fail to be compliant with local codes 
  • Failures in the patent application process 
  • Increased costs or financial losses 

5) Collaborate with patent attorneys or legal experts 

One layer of Quality Assurance that is always worthwhile is to have your translated document proofread by patent attorneys or legal experts who specialise in your target jurisdiction. 

Only local legal specialists can truly know how airtight your translated patent application is. Only they can guarantee you are adhering to the specific local legal requirements. 

Understand the significance of patent translation for businesses

Patent translation helps businesses expand globally and launch rapid, sustained business growth. It does this by ensuring legal compliance and providing protection for its key Intellectual Property in diverse international markets. 

Yet translating a patent is immensely challenging. It requires a high-level mix of linguistic mastery, subject matter expertise, and legal knowledge only available via specialist LSPs. 

If you want to safeguard your Intellectual Property Rights as you enter new markets and capitalise on international opportunities for business growth though, patent translation will always be vital to understand and succeed at. 

Challenges and considerations in patent translation 

If you want to facilitate real-time, immediate spoken or signed communication between individuals or groups who speak different languages and hail from different cultures, professional interpretation is the way to do it. 

The value an interpreter delivers in a diverse range of situations – from business and commerce-related settings to medical and legal ones – is massive. It’s also unique. 

Interpretation’s key purpose is to ensure both sides understand not only the spoken words used but also the context, meaning, and intent of the communication. 

It is often the difference between a trade made, a deal broken, or a relationship that thrives.