Machines Can Ease the Olympics Translation Crunch

The Olympics is a boon to translators. Much of the reporting, interpretation and documentation for the massively international event is handled by humans, but human translators with the right skills can be scarce. “Between some pairs of languages, there are very few people who are experts in both,” said Sanford Cohen, founder of message translation firm SpeakLike. But it’s not just the languages needed, either. New forms of communication like IM, email, voicemail and the web demand different approaches, and computers can help with both challenges.

Machine translation is nothing new: Systran, founded in 1968 to help translate Cold War communications, powered the 1997 launch of the Babelfish service that popularized online translation, and until recently, it was behind Google’s translation systems. Humorous results aside, machine translation works well when software has access to sample text or past translations. “There has been a significant improvement in translation quality because of computing power,” Dimitris Sabatakakis, Systran’s CEO, said.

But relying on previous translations and large samples doesn’t work as well for IM because short messages lack context. And in translation, context is everything. “If you’re trying to translate ‘serveur’ and you know it’s about food, you’ll probably choose ‘waiter,’” Sabatakakis said. “If it’s about computers, you’ll probably choose ‘server.’”

To compensate for context, IM translation company Speaklike uses a combination of software and people and requires that subscribers use its own IM client. Speaklike currently offers four languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese — and the system “daisy chains” languages to get from, say, Portuguese to Chinese by going through English. While having two interpreters might be awkward in person, the only impact in an IM context is a slightly increased delay.

Competitor Meglobe, which launched its translation client on Tuesday, is machine-only, meaning it can offer speed, privacy and more languages but lacks the benefit of humans checking translations. Meglobe, which uses Jabber instead of its own client, hopes the wisdom of the crowds can help make its translations better over time by suggesting better interpretations.

VoIP service provider JAJAH is also getting into the interpreter game, starting with English-to-Mandarin Chinese. Their new JAJAH Babel service, developed in conjunction with IBM, lets users dial their local JAJAH number, say an English phrase, and hear it played back in Chinese or vice-versa. The software combines voice recognition and translation, but getting it to understand what you’re saying can be a challenge even on a clear phone line.

SpeakLike’s Cohen sees significant opportunity for alternative ways of communicating. “The Chinese government trained a hundred thousand people to speak English. Typically that’s two or three designated speakers in each company,” he said. “If an engineer in the U.S. is talking to his counterpart in China, everything goes through a point person. This technology breaks down the barriers for direct communications across the organization.”