Tag Archives: everyday life

Nora, young world traveler

One of the most comical situations I’ve been in with machine translation was when a colleague and I went to see a local tourist site in a part of China where people don’t tend to speak English. We were trying to buy tickets with the help of Google Translate but for some reason, no one could understand what we wanted. I think they were telling us where we needed to go, and we just kept repeating that we want to buy tickets. Then more and more people gathered around to help and we were all typing furiously on our phones. After 15 minutes we finally managed to get the tickets.

GT screenshot_buytickets

It was in China that I originally got the idea that machine translation would be helpful while traveling. Some colleagues and I were trying to work out something in Chinese when one of them pulled out her phone, translated, and we quickly figured it out. Before that I’d used Google Translate rarely, just to check individual words while I was studying or something.

Nowadays I use the Google Translate app very often. My work in the international travel industry means I travel to a lot of foreign destinations, spending 1-5 days in each. In many locations I get by just fine with English, but especially in China and Japan, I find myself pulling out my phone and using Google Translate many times a day.

One of the main places I use it is in restaurants and it seems to be a very common thing to do that. Especially in China, the minute they realize we don’t share a language, they pull out a phone and start trying to communicate through machine translation. In Japan it’s kind of the opposite – they won’t be the first to start trying with Google Translate. I think they’re quite shy, and maybe a bit embarrassed that they don’t know English. The Chinese seem to want to understand so they jump right in and don’t worry about potentially embarrassing situations.

I actually know a little Chinese so might get by on that and body language, but I also eat vegetarian so often need to explain things a bit more. If I try to say ‘No meat!’ with my few words of Chinese, they might only understand the word ‘meat’ and bring me a meat dish. (In fact that has happened and I was presented with octopus, beef and shrimp. Perfect.) Better to translate what I’m trying to say on the phone.

Most of the time I type what I want to say into the app and then it translates. If the person looks confused then I try writing it again in a slightly different way. Once in a while I use the voice thing where you talk into the phone’s speaker and it translates, but mostly I like the typing better. Somehow with the voice thing I’m less sure if it’s correct or not. Sometimes I use both: first let them read the translated text, then listen to a voice translation.

I also use the Google Translate app in stores to read labels and signs. One of my favorite things to do abroad is to visit local grocery stores, I love spending time in them. And, of course, since I’m often at a destination for several days, I need to buy some very normal, everyday things. Or I might shop for clothing and then I want to good, natural materials. What I use in these situations is that translation app function where I take a photo of a text – a label or a sign – and it tries to translate it for me.

The app has even been helpful at work on occasion. Like when a customer speaks a language I don’t know, or even a dialect of a language that is hard to understand, but they really need something. Then we have sometimes used Google Translate to communicate and resolve their issues.

I would say that my success rate with using apps to communicate with other people is fairly high, maybe 80-100% Usually I get what I want and they understand me, at least I think so. With the picture-taking method I’d say the rate of success is more like 50/50. Sometimes I get a clue what something’s about but sometimes…it’s just random words. The photo thing is just not that good yet.  

I always use English with these machine translation apps. I just think that my own language is not a good language to translate with. It seems to me that English is the key to machine translating. Or should I say it this way: if you understand English, it’s much easier for you to use it.

Eeva’s story: 现在我们出去玩 (Now we’re going out to play)

This is a good time to tell you about how we used Google Translate with our now-6-year-old son because just last week we celebrated the 2-year anniversary of when we went to China to adopt him. He had just turned 4 then.

Before we left for China, I wondered how we’re going to manage to communicate with a little boy who speaks his own language but doesn’t yet know how to read it. And we didn’t know any Chinese. We had a Chinese guide with us on the trip, so I asked him about maybe using Google Translate. He said yes, that could work; he had a similar tool that he used from time to time. He told us the right version of Chinese to use with it and also gave us advice on how to use it. The main thing was to use as simple and short sentences as possible.

We tried it out, typing out our Finnish sentences and then having the app “speak” in Chinese. We considered using spoken Finnish input too, but thought that there might be a bigger chance of mistakes then so we stuck to typing. We did say the sentences out loud in Finnish as we typed so that our son would start to connect what we were saying with what was happening.

Our son is a very responsive child and quickly figured out that the Chinese coming from the phone was telling him something helpful. He would nod and then do what the app told him to do. Or he might answer back ‘No!’ if he didn’t want to do what it was telling him to do (that was a Chinese word we learned quickly). Either way, we knew he understood.

We used this system mostly for things that we couldn’t communicate through hand signals. Things like what is happening and what we’re going to do next: “Mommy is making the food. Then we’ll eat.” Why we’re all getting our clothes on: “Now we’re going outside.” That was important, we didn’t want him to feel confused.

Translation of 'Mommy is making the food. Then we'll eat.' from English to Simplified Chinese

I’d say during the first month we used it 10 times a day. I pretty much had my phone near me at all times, ready to go whenever my son showed signs of being confused or wondering about what’s going on. Every once in a while the app clearly got my sentence wrong so I had to try again, but at least half the time it worked fine on the first try.

How did it affect his learning of Finnish? It’s kind of hard to say because I don’t know what it might have been like without us using Google Translate. But I think it most likely made learning Finnish easier. It was just astounding how quickly he picked it up! Though kids at that age, they tend to learn very quickly.

We didn’t end up using this system very long. We met our son in January and I clearly remember that by March he started to use the Finnish words he knew. We had had an interpreter along for things like doctor visits, and in March he also stopped replying to her in Chinese. I guess he might have thought that Finnish belongs to his new life and positive experiences, so he just made a conscious decision to stop using Chinese. 

I recently asked him if he remembers using the translation app at the beginning. He remembered that it was a woman’s voice (true) and that he understood her every time she spoke (not so sure on that one, he tends to be a bit of an optimist).  

Even though we only used machine translation for that short time, it was a very effective time. It helped us to explain things and what was going on. It was a big help.

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.

Dr. C. Koby, Physicist*

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, USA
October 15, 1971

Part of my work as a physicist is to keep abreast of research being carried out in my field. I try to follow activities in all parts of the world, but I am particularly interested in the research being conducted in the Soviet Union. I would guess that something like 15% of the articles and books I need to read in my field are written in Russian. I have no competence in Russian so have to rely on translations to access those materials.

A very positive development in the past few years is a service that my laboratory offers which machine translates articles from Russian to English. They don’t have anyone correct the articles,  you get what the machine puts out. I have personally used the service 10 or so times over the past 3½ years.

I have one simple reason for using the MT service: it is fast. After a request, I can expect to get a machine-translated article back in 1 month, much more quickly than the 9-10 weeks some colleagues report waiting for articles translated by humans.

More time and effort is required to understand machine-translated texts as compared to those written in English – I’d say about double the time. One reason for that is that formulas and diagrams from the original articles do not get translated, so I usually have both the machine-translated text and the original Russian article, and I go back and forth between them. In general, however, I’d say that the quality of the translations is acceptable. In a funny way, over time you get used to the style. You find yourself mentally correcting awkward passages.

I think it’s important to bring up the fact that the machine translation is understandable to myself and my colleagues mostly because we are familiar with the contexts being discussed. We know our own fields well and that allows us to accommodate texts that are not perfect. It is also important that technical terms are translated correctly or at least understandably, and the majority of the time, they are. The most common problem is words that are left untranslated. I don’t know why that happens but it does, and it can affect understanding.

I’ve been asked if it would be possible for someone to completely misunderstand the machine translations and arrive at the opposite meaning from the original. Yes, sometimes the meaning is a bit distorted, but since I know the context of what I’m reading so well, I do not think that it is possible to arrive at the opposite meaning. I have never heard of it happening anyway.

Overall, I’d say that I’m happy to use the service. It allows me to read things I would normally have to wait far longer to get access to. I would, and actually have been known to, recommend the use of machine translation to my colleagues.


*       Instead of being about 1 real person, the persona in this story is a composite that is based on a group of 58 real people who were surveyed by Bozena Henisz-Dostert in the early 1970s (see reference below). The group consisted of some of the first users of one of the first machine translation systems: the Georgetown Automated Translation system, developed in the 1950s and early 1960s at Georgetown University. Although its development was discontinued in 1964 due to lack of financial support, the Georgetown system continued to be used, virtually in its 1964 state, for a decade or so by 2 groups of scientists in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Ispra, Italy.

The persona in the story was compiled in a straightforward way. I used 23 of the survey’s 51 questions. For each question, I took the most popular answer, or the mean or average of the figures given in answers, to describe Dr. Koby. The name ‘Koby’ came from an internet name generator and does not reflect any one true person.

The story is based entirely on information from Bozena Henisz-Dostert’s article ‘Users’ evaluation of machine translation’ in the book Machine Translation by Henisz-Dostert et al. 1979.

 

Nadal and Fourcade super fan!

Nadal_FB      Fourcade 3

My name is Pirkko, I’m a 77-year-old woman, and I admit to being a super fan. There are 2 athletes I follow avidly: tennis player Rafael Nadal and biathlete Martin Fourcade (and also, on the side, Fourcade’s biathlete younger brother Simon)

I’m one of those crazy sports fans, the kind of person who gets a tennis channel and watches it. A lot. But I like to do more than just watch the sports, I want to learn about the athletes themselves. Knowing them better and knowing something personal about them – that gives some depth to the whole experience of being a sports fan.

If I were limited to what they write about these guys in the press here in Finland, well, I wouldn’t know much. So I go online to read up on them. I am Facebook friends with both Nadal and Fourcade and both write something almost every day. I like reading those and I enjoy the pictures too – it puts me into a good mood. I feel like it opens up my world.

Since I don’t know any Spanish or French, only a bit of English, I rely entirely on the translations provided by Facebook. No, the translations are not perfect, but I understand that they’re not going to be. The thing is, I know the fields and I know the people involved, so if something is unclear I can make a good guess at what it’s supposed to mean. For example, take the words judge and play. Sometimes the machine gets those wrong, placing judge in a courtroom and play in a music lesson. But we’re talking tennis here, so I know that the real meanings have to do with referees and tennis rackets.

Both Fourcade and Nadal also tend to write messages both in their own language and English, and Facebook gives me translations for both:

Fourcade FB

It’s helpful to have 2 translations. I always look at both translations and put together the meaning from their combination. The translation from English is almost always better than the one from French or Spanish, but I’m looking at an example right now where the translation from French is better. IMHO the translations on Fourcade’s page tend to be better than the ones on Nadal’s, but it could simply be that Fourcade writes more clearly.

When there is a word or post I don’t understand, I sometimes type it into Google Translate. I also have a dictionary, I suppose I should use that more often too (chuckle). If there is a handy child or grandchild around, I might ask them for help, but I don’t go calling my kids to ask. The stuff I am translating is not that important.

Thoughts on machine translation

I found this translation thing pretty much right away when I joined Facebook, so I’ve been using it for more than 10 years now. My friends don’t use it and I don’t really go recommending it to people. I’m old enough that my friends are really not technical – I don’t think I’d have anyone to recommend it to!

I’m really satisfied that there is a tool like this for those of us who don’t know languages. Computers have brought both bad and good things to our lives, mostly good in my opinion, and machine translation is a nice addition to that. Without it, I don’t think I’d follow the athletes as much. Being able to go further and learn about the personal lives and histories of the athletes I follow – it brings openness to my world.