Google’s translation agenda

Haven’t had time to do the proper checking, but Google invited journalists to discover what’s cooking in their development kitchen last week, in the wake of the underwhelming Personalization launch. Apparently translation automation was on the menu, according to this report:

Officials from Google also announced that the company is working on a translation program. “Historically, the approach to building machine translation systems is to have expert machine linguists write down dictionaries and rules on how to translate, say, from Chinese to English” said researcher Franz Och. “Trying to write down all the rules on how to translate from Chinese to English is very hard.”

Instead, Google is fine-tuning a translation program that can automatically translate back and forth between documents in different languages. All the languages of the United Nations will be supported.

If true, this language spread means English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. Pity that Franz Och can’t work on his native German.

A similar story put it slightly differently:

Instead, Google is fine-tuning a translation program that can automatically translate back and forth between documents in different languages — a sort of virtual Rosetta Stone.

That strange instead again. Going back and forth between languages is surely what translation automation programs do anyway, however they are crafted. The over-used Rosetta Stone meme is the wrong metaphor for translation as process (a carved stone only displays the results of an act of translating), and misleading in a world in which translation will appear as effortlessly instantaneous – you won’t ever need to see the original language alongside your translated version.

Although it’s still early days, Google’s translation program is good news. We need more and more such real-world translation efforts among the big web players. They enable us to test public acceptability thresholds fairly rapidly, explore more quickly than in the past rival technologies (statistics vs. rules vs. hybrids of both, etc) in an age of near infinite computing power, and steadily position translation as a ‘natural’ practice at the beating heart of information finding (or searching, as they still call it).

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Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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