[AI] Are machines ready to break down language barriers?

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Mon Jun 21 02:17:25 EDT 2010

          Online translation is shedding its clunky reputation, bringing the
          vision of global conversation a step closer to reality

by Tom Simonite

EVEN in an era of global networks and cheap travel, international
communication still faces one great barrier: we don't all speak the
same language. But that gap is narrowing as online translation
services advance.

Recently launched website Meedan translates Arabic-language news
stories into English, and vice versa, and displays the two versions
alongside each other. Comments in either language are instantly
translated. A new site for bloggers, called Mojofiti,
automatically makes posts available to readers in 27 languages. And
Google now has a tool that will eventually allow anyone with a
camera-phone to photograph, say, a German restaurant menu, send the
image as a multimedia message to Google's servers, and get an English
translation sent back to them.

All these services ultimately rely on a technique called statistical
machine translation, in which software learns to translate by using
brute mathematics to compare large collections of previously
translated documents. It then uses the rules it has learned this way
to determine the most likely translation in future.

"Whenever there is a possibility of the language barrier preventing
someone from doing something there should be the possibility to
translate," says Franz Och, who leads machine translation research
at Google. His team's Translate service can currently operate between
52 different languages and he is aiming to add more, especially those
previously ignored by machine translators. "A speaker of Bengali can
only experience a tiny fraction of a per cent of the web," says Och.

Though translation algorithms have improved, some human intervention
is still needed to provide a translation that reads well. Meedan's
news articles, for example, are machine translated and then tidied up
by editors. Google's Toolkit for professional translators produces a
machine translation for them to tidy up, in the process providing
feedback to the software to improve its translation capabilities.

With the right help even someone that speaks only a single language
could produce results as good as those of a professional, says
Philipp Koehn of the University of Edinburgh, UK. His service,
Caitra, outputs several possible phrases if it is uncertain which one
is correct. This lets a monoglot user fix garbled phrases that would
otherwise be unfathomable without reading the original.

Technical telepathy: 09969636745

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