Updated. Google’s translation services have been called all sorts of things over the years, from “incredible“ to “woeful“ and — by one particularly disgruntled user — “a total disgrace.” But here’s one to add to that pile: “unique.”
At least, the U.S. Patent Office thinks so — enough to award Google Translate a patent.
This one The patent, issued in September, appears to have skipped under the media’s radar, but in and it was brought to my attention by a filing with the U.S. Patent Office published last week, which noted that the company was awarded the rights for what it calls “displaying original text in a user interface with translated text.”
That means it’s not the actual act of translation we’re talking about here, but the act of presenting the translation back to the user alongside the original text. In Google Translate’s website tool — which pops up when you visit a foreign-language site and currently supports more than 50 tongues including everything from English, Arabic and Chinese to Catalan and Welsh — the service translates the actual web page into your chosen language and displays the original text in a pop-up box when you hover over a piece of translated text.
Whether or not you think it’s right that it’s possible to get a patent for a method of presentation, rather than a process, it could be an important piece of news for several reasons. Translation is a pretty hot new area that’s advancing quickly. In the last year or so, we’ve mentioned services like Linguee and Babylon which could potentially be affected by Google’s ownership of this patent.
It’s increasingly obvious that translation is a big part of Google’s plans for the future, whether it’s via the Star Trek-like conversations mode — where two people can speak to each other in different languages in near real-time — or what Eric Schmidt called augmented humanity. Accurate automated translation is the sort of revolutionary service that makes Google incredibly powerful, potentially indispensable and is appealing to all kinds of business.
In fact, it’s got friends in some pretty high places. At the end of last year, the European Patent Office said it was working with Google Translate to provide translation services for applicants across the European Union. The idea was to try to remove some of the headache for applicants, who currently have to file a copy in English, French or German and in any of the languages of the European countries it wishes its patent to operate (that’s 37 states and, by my count, another 23 languages).
However, there’s one final note. The application, first filed in 2006, names a septet of Google engineers and designers, but there’s one notable omission: Franz Josef Och, the German computer scientist who runs Google Translate. He first designed the system after complaining that existing machine translation systems were inadequate (he even won a Darpa-sponsored contest for speed translation back in 2003), but his absence from the paperwork could be the strongest indication needed that this is less about the technology than the interface.
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