Category: Translations

Patent Searching: Working with Documents Written in Unfamiliar Languages

Before embarking upon a new venture with a new product or process that you’ve invented, an important first step is to conduct a basic patent search.  This will give you a reasonable idea of whether your idea has already been published and whether a third party already has a patent that covers it.

As with many jurisdictions, New Zealand applies a test of absolute novelty, meaning for an invention to be patentable, it must not have been made publicly available at any time, anywhere in the world, by means of written or oral description, by use or in any other way, before the priority date of the patent being sought.

Whilst it’s always a good idea to engage the services of a professional patent searcher and analyst throughout the life cycle of your IP and products, there is still a certain amount of initial work you can do for yourself, such as a basic patent search.  If your search returns documents written in a language with which you’re unfamiliar, this raises the challenge of how to interpret this prior art.

A lack of experience working with various languages should not be seen as a barrier to trying to determine the potential relevance of such documents before dismissing them.

In this post I share a few of the tips, tricks and resources for assessing documents written in foreign languages.


Look at the Pictures

A picture paints a thousand words.  Examining the images, figures and drawings within a patent document can often provide a clearer appreciation of the nature of an invention, particularly when the text is either difficult to interpret, or is in an unfamiliar language.


Not All Patents Are Purely Monolingual

It is required practice at the European Patent Office that the claims of granted EP patents are published in all three official languages of the EPO – English, French and German.  So, if you need a translation in one of these three languages, a granted EP patent will at least provide you with the claims in your language of choice.

In addition, these documents will provide you with English, French and German keywords for the features you’re searching for in order to expand your searches to documents only published in those languages.


Other Equivalents

Along similar lines to the previous point, looking within the patent family may help you find other equivalents (patent family members) that are written in your preferred language.

It’s important to note that these won’t necessarily be direct translations of each other.  Nonetheless, they will provide an indication as to the nature of the invention being protected.


Online Translation Engines

Some of the free online patent search tools, as well as many of the commercially available products, provide translation tools built into their display interfaces.  Be sure to identify these where available and make full use of them.  Whereas they don’t provide a substitute for a professional translation, the quality of machine translation is often very high and will provide a good indication as to whether the document you are looking at is likely to require deeper investigation.

Failing this, copying & pasting into, for example, Google Translate will also provide a translation to give you the gist of an invention.


EPO Asian Patent Information Virtual Helpdesk

The European Patent Office has a virtual helpdesk for understanding and working with patent information from various Asian and Middle Eastern jurisdictions.  Clear guides are available to help you search and understand IP from these regions:


Take-Home Message

Don’t let a lack of knowledge or experience working with unfamiliar languages limit your ability to interpret global patent information.  A small amount of careful research as well as making the most of numerous free online tools can help you identify important and valuable prior art that may otherwise have been missed.

These techniques should never replace the practice of engaging an IP professional and translator, but will help you gain a broader, global understanding of the space in which your business operates.

Alistair Curson



Bhatti, AW. (2017, October 02). “Topic 3: Legal Requirements for Patentability and Typical Parts of a Patent Application”. Retrieved February 04, 2019, from:

Macaskill D. (2013, September 12). “New dawn for the New Zealand Patent landscape – the New Patents Act”. Retrieved February 04, 2019, from:

The European Patent Convention. “Article 14: Languages of the European Patent Office, European patent applications and other documents”. Retrieved, February 05, 2019, from:

The European Patent Office. (2019, January 17). “Asian Patent Information”. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from:

Wikipedia. (2019, February 04). “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Retrieved February 05, 2019, from: