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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.”

7 Responses to “Machines Can Ease the Olympics Translation Crunch”

  1. Have to agree with Brian Barker – computer translation is (and would be) of minimal help to me in the multilingual face-to-face social situations I often find myself in. The investment of time needed for a basic working knowledge of the interlanguage Esperanto is small, compared to any ethnic language.

    The resistance to serious investigation of ‘universal bilingualism’ [YOUR ethnic language + non-ethnic Esperanto for all] is truly amazing, even though there is now a 121-year history of successful daily application of the language for all to see, not least in the recently finished 93rd annual weeklong World Esperanto Congress which just terminated in Rotterdam/Netherlands. This congress attracted 1800+ Esperanto-speakers from 73 different countres. Other meetings go on around the world almost daily using Esperanto as the sole means of communication, to which the English-speaking world is largely oblivious:
    And China has been using Esperanto too in its Olypic reporting:
    while Radio China International has had a regular daily program in Esperanto for several decades now, as has Radio Polonia:

  2. I am not at all certain that computer translation is the long term solution to a worldwide language problem.

    People who are starving in Africa, really can’t afford to pay for computer translation, as well as food.

    Ultimately then a language like Esperanto must deserve serious consideration. Interestinly nine British MP’s have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.

    You can see detail at

  3. @Aman No, I actually think it’s pretty inaccurate (see the Garfield link in the text above.) But it’s often good enough to discern meaning. I don’t think it will be used for “frontline” interpretation but I do believe background, technician-to-technician messages that keep things rolling can be improved a lot by this kind of service.

  4. Aman Sehgal

    Hi Alistair,

    You correctly pointed out that the Olympics translators crunch can be eased out by using computer software but do you believe that a software will be able to translate each and everything properly ? The reason is that text in any language can be very vast and it may not be possible for a software to have entire data corresponding to that language. But yes, this software version of translator will definitely be of great help.