Machine vs. Human Translation: When to Use Which for Legal Translation

A hybrid approach of human and machine is the most effective strategy. Professional human translators have always been the go-to way of translating documents for legal proceedings and patents. They have the linguistic expertise, a better understanding of cultural context and the ability to make judgment calls on what and how to translate. However, machine…

Human vs Machine Translation

A hybrid approach of human and machine is the most effective strategy.

Professional human translators have always been the go-to way of translating documents for legal proceedings and patents. They have the linguistic expertise, a better understanding of cultural context and the ability to make judgment calls on what and how to translate.

However, machine translation (MT) has become a viable alternative for some types of legal content due to faster turnaround and lower cost while retaining a high level of actionability.

Consequently, as more corporations operate in more countries, the potential of litigation over patent infringements, copyright violations, and product liability rises.

Multilingual E-Discovery 

To compound the challenge, corporate attorneys and law firms must now sift through terabytes of electronic data. These are digital documents, emails, databases, spreadsheets, presentations, multimedia files, voicemails, chat transcripts and online content.

Multiply that by the number of languages the data is available in, and it becomes a complex, costly and all-consuming effort.

This is where multilingual e-discovery comes in. Electronic discovery is the process of identifying, collating, organizing and classifying electronically stored information needed for a court case or legal investigation.

The challenge is how best to translate the data and figure out which data needs translation in the first place. What data is relevant to a case?

When it comes to e-discovery, there’s no debate. MT and language identification are crucial in scanning multilingual data, identifying relevant content, and streamlining the document review process in a scalable fashion.

They help legal teams identify which foreign languages are used in documents. Keyword searches allow them to find specific phrases relevant to a case. Combined, they determine the content that needs to be translated by humans.

MT in the World of IP Translations

Machine translation technology is continually improving and performing better, especially in the IP space. However, there remains a great deal of valid concern behind using MT, due to the potentiality of small mistakes being the difference between a $100 million patent being enforceable or not. We need to consider how we can incorporate what we know and what advance we’re able to make in MT to make our human translation processes better.  

Comments Matthew Sekac, VP, Data & Business Intelligence, Welocalize, at Global IP Confex, “There’s a great deal of potential in this technology and, there are many opportunities for this technology to add value. Both from an efficiency and then also a qualitative standpoint. The direction of our industry and how we’re thinking about applying it to patents is how we’re thinking about leveraging the expertise that we have in our organization.”

Getting multilingual documents translated is very important in the patent process. For the sheer volume of materials in global patents, AI can help enable productivity. AI gives patent attorneys the opportunity to potentially retrieve and understand ALL documents in the world. With AI-enabled technology, you can conduct a uniform prior art search to help validate a patent.

If you introduce AI into the global patent process, the quality of patents will improve since the patent examiner can take into account any document in any language. In addition, the search reports produced by the national IP offices will be more complete and more consistent, which in turn will speed up a slow patent granting process.

Machine Translation vs. Human Translation 

After the discovery and review process is complete, the decision comes down to how best to translate selected foreign-language content. Three variables need consideration: quality, speed and cost — and there is a trade-off between them.

  1. Quality. Human translation offers greater accuracy, especially for legal and technical documents. A team of linguists and legal experts can make better decisions on how best to translate content. On the other hand, artificial intelligence is quickly catching up in understanding context and cultural nuances. Plus, MT can produce more consistent translations, particularly of terminology.
  2. Speed. In legal proceedings, deadlines are critical. If fast turnaround time is a priority, then nothing beats MT. It can rapidly translate volumes of data that humans can’t possibly match.
  3. Cost. Between human translators and MT, there are significant cost-savings in the latter. MT’s efficiency and speed are unparalleled.

When to Use (Unreviewed) Machine Translation 

MT is simply faster and cheaper. Not only can it translate larger volumes of data rapidly, but it can also translate between multiple languages using a single tool.

However, it can introduce mistranslations and will often sound less idiomatic or fluent. If budget and speed are your primary consideration, then MT makes sense. However, it’s not the only reason you should go for MT. These are some situations for choosing MT:

MT can save time and money and helps identify the content that requires further review, post-editing, and human translation.

When to Use Human Translation  

Even with the advances in AI and neural machine translation, linguists are needed to edit and review MT output, depending on the translation purpose and use case.

Here are some situations where opting for a human translation would be best practice:

Welocalize recommends certified human translation for submissions, which achieves the highest accuracy. For additional information or deciding whether the document is suitable for submission, medium-level post-editing of MT suffices.

Combining Machines and Humans 

While the situations above warrant human translation, it is not always efficient or cost-effective to rely solely on human translators for large-scale, cross-border litigation. You would need an army of linguists with legal knowledge across multiple languages.

The ideal solution is to use both machine translation and human translation.

The best approach is to leverage the speed and actionability of AI-enabled MT processes, design configurable workflows to streamline automation, and use professional reviewers and translators for blended tasks.

MT can be the first stage in translating huge volumes of data. Incorporating MT in the discovery can determine the documents that require linguists, thus streamlining the process.

Adds Sekac, “It’s not that we think human translators are going to go away, but it’s about how we are using technology to make this better. The same way translation memory technology made human translators more efficient. It’s about how we can use everything that we know and all the expertise that we have to augment and facilitate the human translation processes we’re employing to deliver better outcomes.”

For more on HT vs. MT, watch the session “Will Machine Translation Replace Human Translators?” on YouTube.

This article first appeared in Attorney at Work in February 2022.