A Global World: What the Future of Translation Holds

18 Oct A Global World: What the Future of Translation Holds

Some see computer translators as part of a dystopian future where once-human jobs are replaced by machines. Others laud them for bringing easy translations into the hands of anyone with a computer or smart phone. Translation pioneer Chris Wendt envisions a future where language barriers don’t exist. An English speaker and a Japanese speaker could have a meeting in the middle of Rome, order lunch in perfect Italian, and have a conversation with one another, all without a single moment spent in the classroom.

People could do business across linguistic boundaries, anywhere on the planet.

If you’ve ever used something like Google translate for this purpose, you know that the result can be … awkward, said Wendt, program manager of Microsoft’s Machine Translation group, which includes Bing Translator and Skype Translator.

The ever-present clumsiness in common translators occurs because they aim to translate everything. As anyone who’s tried to do everything knows, this means that it also can’t do any one thing particularly well. When a basic translator identifies a word that has multiple definitions, it simply chooses the most common one. That can lead to problems when the translation is used for specific applications, something that Wendt’s team is trying to address.

Microsoft is developing domain-specific computer translation by using information about what it thinks people mean, based on what they’re working on.

Say a customer service representative at a computer company was chatting with a customer having problems. If they told the person to “re-boot”, specialized translation software would recognize this as the computer term. If the service representative worked at on online fashion retailer, the domain-specific translator would know they were talking about footwear by drawing on fashion-specific lexicon.

Computer translation is getting better all the time. It has surpassed human translation in terms of speed and cost. Yet humans still have an edge when it comes to quality, at least for now, Wendt said.

“But if you ask me, would I encourage my children, who are still very young, to become translators, I would say, ‘No,'” Wendt said. But if someone was determined to become a translator, he’d encourage them to specialize in unusual language-to-language translations and specific industry applications, where technology will be slow to catch up.

Microsoft is only working with 50 languages so far, of the 6,500 in the world. As new material becomes available online to study and learn from – through TV shows, movies, translated publications, social media posts and more – Microsoft will add more languages. Tongan, Samoan and Fijian go live this week, Wendt said.

Then again, freelance translators, most of whom get paid by the word, can also utilize the new technology to make their process faster, using their time to add the human touch that machine translation often lacks. It’s not uncommon for a human translator to work this way, interpreting colloquialisms, informal language, new terms and context-specific meanings where machines may have fallen short.

But the broader vision is that as it gets better and better, translation technology will do for conversations what GPS did for driving, Wendt said.

“Have your driving habits changed with GPS? Yes. So you are now brave enough to go to places that you haven’t been, because you know that GPS will always get you out of it. It is like that with translation. Because you can talk to somebody you were afraid to approach before, because you assumed you didn’t have a language in common.”

Of course, Wendt said, even a perfect translation can’t overcome cultural barriers or misunderstandings. If you’ve ever tried to translate a joke, you know what I mean.

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