Author Archives: MTstoryteller

About MTstoryteller

I am fascinated by the users of machine translation

Gustav: “With machine translation I can contribute better, also in places where I’m not directly asked.”

For the first several years I lived in Finland, I worked in a large, very international company and English was the main language used. Even though that is not my native language, Swedish is, my English is very good. But a few years ago I changed jobs and my new job is in a truly Finnish company with only 3-4 non-Finns working there. Finnish is not a requirement (luckily, or they wouldn’t have hired me), but of course people are more comfortable with Finnish. I think this is a great thing actually, I see it very much as an opportunity for me to learn Finnish.

Some of the texts I need to deal with at work, e-mails and documentation on the software products we make, are in English half the time and Finnish half the time. There is no strict language policy. Other texts I need to understand are always in Finnish, like human resources kind of information – things like, what’s the company’s travel policy? What is the procedure I need to follow to take parental leave?

My Finnish is OK-ish. I find it hard to follow spoken Finnish. But with written things like e-mails or instructions, I can usually work out the basics of what I need. The problem is when I need to understand the details. Then I can very often get lost. So what I do is use Google Translate to translate the parts that I don’t understand. Sometimes I do it to get confirmation that I have understood things correctly.

I mostly translate from Finnish to English, not Swedish, because generally I find it works better than Finnish-to-Swedish. Every once in a while if the English translation is iffy or I don’t understand it, I might try translating into Swedish.  

I would say that machine translation works surprisingly well. I use it pretty much daily and 80-90% of the times I use it, it gives me the information I need. I actually work with speech and language technology and I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years, there have been amazing advances in machine translation in terms of readability. I have been using it more and more since I noticed this. It helps that I know the general gist of things when I translate a text – I’m confident that I can assess whether the translation makes sense or not.

When it doesn’t work – I don’t understand something I’ve translated – I go back to the original text in Finnish and simplify it. The original might have little mistakes in it that I correct, or I simplify the content and structure a bit. And then I put it through machine translation again. This often helps. When it doesn’t, I either ask a colleague for help or I simply decide that the text is not that important so I ignore it.

Machine translation really helps me in getting the missing pieces from everyday e-mails and documents. I might get an e-mail with a long discussion thread, all in Finnish, and finally someone forwards it to me to see if I can help with the solution. With the help of Google Translate, I can get a better understanding of the thread and the context of the problem, and then I can answer more questions and answer the right questions better.

What would I do if I didn’t have the help of machine translation at work? Well, I would probably be more blind to the context of things. I might end up ignoring some things, and I suppose I might end up being less cooperative in a way. I would get away with being more in the background. With the translation I can contribute better, also in places where I wasn’t directly asked. 

On a larger scale, one thing that surprises me is how little visible impact machine translation has had on businesses. Take web shops – you rarely see web shops from other places in Europe that have their pages machine translated. You rarely see them available in, say, 25 languages. It seems to me that businesses, even small ones, could be selling across Europe more than they are now. Machine translation could help.

Google Translate in a fourth-grade classroom

I teach the fourth grade in a public elementary school in the suburbs of a large U.S. city, and in my classroom I often have a child or two with very limited English skills. These kids are 8 or 9 years old and often here with parents who are stationed temporarily in the U.S. They get daily or weekly time with the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, but other than that, they are fully integrated into normal American classrooms.

I use Google Translate with these children in a very focused, need-to-solve-a-problem basis. I have a specific question I need to ask, an instruction I need them to follow, or I need to get information from them. Things like, How are you going home today? Are you going to buy lunch in the cafeteria today or did you bring a lunch? You know, the kinds of daily activities in the life of a classroom.

When I was in the third grade my dad got posted in a foreign country for a year, so I actually know what it’s like for those kids. You’re just sitting there in a fog while everyone around you speaks Russian or some language you can’t grasp. Nowadays I have a tool I can use to help kids in a similar situation through the school day: Now we’re going to do this. This is what you need to do. Those kinds of things are important for their general feeling of well-being, that they can manage the school day.

Julia_GT excerptI sometimes use it in other ways. During writing lessons, I might have a child write in their native language. Then I copy/paste that into Google Translate so I have an idea of what they’ve written. I figure at this stage, writing in your own language is better than trying to write in English. I’ve even tried translating larger blocks of text for a student to read so they can at least know what is being discussed in class.

The languages I’ve dealt with so far are French and Spanish. I had Latin in high school so I can recognize word derivations and root words and can be somewhat assured that what’s been translated is moderately close to what we’re talking about.

When you’re communicating this way, you have to read between the lines a bit. It’s usually so situation-specific that you can get the meaning, but once in a while it takes some back-and-forth questions and answers to narrow things down and get an understanding. Luckily if we hit a dead end, I usually have a backup: a school employee or another child who speaks the student’s language. If that method fails, we can always call the parents to sort things out. At least one of them usually speaks English.

As the kids learn more English, I find myself using machine translation more. I can tell that they are starting to understand me a bit and I want to communicate more. I first say something then I type it into Google Translate. They can see the connection between what I’m saying, what I’m typing, and then what it goes out to in their own language.

I feel like machine translation is a resource that I can use to move to the next step. It really feels like a bridge for understanding.

Whatever else happens, I want these kids to feel like they are understood.

Helmuth, University Lecturer

I use machine translation to communicate with a PhD student in another country about her academic work in our field of translation studies. She is researching a topic I know well and have written several articles on, and we have had a kind of e-mail collaboration going on for several months now.

The main language of our discussions is English, but there are several other languages involved. My command of English is more of a passive one, I am of course much better with my native German. Her English seems to be better than mine, though her research work is done in French and her native language is Chinese.

It usually works like this: She writes me mails in English. My English is good enough that I can read them directly. I want my replies to be well thought-out so that they are useful to her, so I write and edit them in German until I am satisfied. I then put the German text into Google Translate and translate it into English. I still edit the English a bit, most often to correct mistranslations of keywords from our specific field. When it’s all ready, I copy/paste the English into the mail.

I actually often include the original German text too. Sometimes I do that because I’m not 100% sure the English version came out saying what I wanted to say or if it will be clear enough. I figure that if I include the original, then she can compare the English with the German, or try machine-translating the original German into a language she knows better, like French or Chinese. Or she may even have access to a different MT tool that gives her better results.

Strictly speaking, we wouldn’t have to do this through machine translation because I do know some English. But it would take so long for me to produce English from scratch! I would sit for hours looking up individual words. I would definitely end up writing shorter and simpler messages, plus I would write less often. I’ve decided using machine translation is the fastest and best method.

Actually this is not the first time I’ve used this kind of solution. 10 years ago I had some collaboration with an academic in Spain and we used it then. We each visited the other’s university and we spoke English when we were together. But for all the communications needed to plan and organizing these visits, we used Babel Fish to translate between German and Spanish. That worked well. We once had a slight misunderstanding that came from the translation of one word, but it was soon cleared up because the context made it clear that it didn’t mean what he thought at first. It can happen that way sometimes – the context corrects things.

Of course the texts you translate in Google are not ready for any kind of publication. That is clear. But for this purpose, it is a valuable tool that saves me time and makes things easier.

Having said that, I’ll add that on the other hand, I find it interesting that people seem to want to believe that language is a system that can be mechanically produced. So much money – millions – has gone into researching these systems. Much more money than they’ve used for more sensible things. I guess it’s just the way people think; they don’t remember that words are only signs that represent mental concepts. The full meaning of words comes only through their relation to a specific situation and context.

Gary, developer of MT systems

I use Google Translate to translate Chinese spam messages which regularly get posted on my website – just in case any of them are of interest!

Actually most of my interest in MT is not about free online MT tools like Google Translate, but about professional tools. I created my first rule-based MT system over 25 years ago and have been involved in developing machine translation since then. My main project is a commercial neural MT system for translating  between Dutch and English. But I also experiment in neural systems for other languages, most recently Indonesian and Turkish.

Since my own knowledge of Indonesian and Turkish is very poor, I’ve found a use for online MT in this experimental work too. For example, I could translate something into Indonesian with my own engine, then back-translate it through Google into English to see how well my model has learned the patterns of a new language. Other times I simply translate the same thing using both my own and Google’s engines and compare the results. It helps me check that my neural network building is going in the right direction.

I really do also Google-translate Chinese spam messages. The translations are usually very basic but tell me what I want to know about the spam – mostly that this is not something in which I could be remotely interested. Let’s not forget that before the arrival of online MT, companies would spend large sums of money each year translating documents that turned out to be completely useless. Online MT saves money.

In general I’m happy to recommend MT to friends for general information purposes: double-checking the translation of a menu in a Chinese restaurant, translating the instructions sent with self-assembly furniture, or reading spam. Most general online translators are quite capable of fulfilling such tasks nowadays. I also recommend MT as a language learning tool.

However, I would not rely on unchecked, unedited MT for information I need to make important decisions. Apart from the obvious fact that the machine translation may be fluent yet incorrect, we have to allow for the possibility that a decision may be challenged in the courts. (Example case. See MT use in the news for more links to news stories on the use of MT).

One thing I’d like people to understand and remember is that the best results are obtained when the MT system is “trained” to handle the type of texts being translated. In online tools like Google Translate, this is not the case.

The MT storyteller

Name: Mary Nurminen

Occupation: Doing a 2-year gig as a full-time Doctoral Researcher (a.k.a. Ph.D. student). On hiatus from my real job as a university instructor.

Location: University of Tampere, Finland.

What I teach when I’m teaching: Finnish-English translation, technical and business writing, specialized translation (technical & business), beginning course in interpreting.

Previous life in keywords: corporate life, 18 years, technical writing, tech pubs management, localization management, Nokia, localization buying, localization selling, Lionbridge, solution architecting.

How to get a hold of me: send me a mail and let’s chat! Tell me your ideas on machine translation, give me tips of people you know who use it in their everyday lives, bring up new topics. I’d like to talk to you!

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