Tag Archives: 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.

Krista, language and communications professional

My English, French and Swedish are all strong and I studied them at the university, but German, Italian and Spanish are languages I haven’t studied since high school. I have a university degree in translation and I worked as a professional translator for some years, but for the past 15 years I’ve been more of a communications professional. I am the Managing Director of a national non-governmental organization and my job consists mostly of communications.

Rich use of Google Translate

I’ve been using Google Translate for many years now. Not in translation work, of course, but for a variety of other things. First of all, I use it to help me make sure I understand texts that are in languages I am not fully fluent in. I read articles, newspaper stories and research papers that have to do with my industry and are in a variety of languages. When I come across a passage I’m not sure I understand, I google-translate it into my native language of Finnish and also into English (usually both, not sure why…maybe curiosity? Or because I love languages?) I also want to know what similar organizations to mine are doing around Europe so I find myself google-translating web pages or other documents to be able to read them.

Sometimes I use the tool to help me when I have to write something in Swedish, which I struggle with a bit. I might write a piece and test it out in Google Translate to make sure I got the phrasing and spelling right. I also test it in regular Google to see if it’s a common way of expressing what I’m trying to express.

I guess the funny thing is that my most frequent use of Google Translate is not really for its translation function. I most often use it as a dictionary. I don’t have a good electronic dictionary at my disposal and I’m a bit lazy about looking things up in books. So I either google the word or use Google Translate to find the meaning. I don’t really look at the translation but down below, where they give dictionary-type information. Here’s an example:

GT dictionary

I like that it gives me multiple suggestions for a translation. I couldn’t ever see myself simply taking the 1 translation it gives in the box and using that. More context helps me make sure I understand.

This also works very well as a thesaurus, a bilingual one at that. It gives you optional synonyms in both languages. And one more thing, a feature I noticed just this year! The megaphone icon at the bottom of the word boxes? That is a pronunciation audio tool.

These kinds of language tools are included in many online dictionaries in different languages, but this is an easy option for multiple languages. Quick.

Oh, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but they want people to help develop Google Translate. I’ve done some volunteering there, mostly in English since that’s the easiest. You click through expressions and words and see if they’re correct or not. It’s kind of a game and helps to develop it. It’s fun.

Double-checking

Google Translate is hardly ever the only thing I use to verify the meaning of a text; normally I double-check it some other way. Even though it’s just for my own use, I work hard to get a good translation.

First of all, I only use it with languages I know well or at least a little. By comparing the original text and the translation, I know enough to know if the translation is something it’s supposed to be. I would never use it with languages like Arabic or Chinese because I would have no way of knowing how ‘right’ the translations are. I also try out translations with different language combinations, often including English somewhere. Because I have background knowledge on how machine translation works, I know that it works best when English is one of the languages used.

Another way I verify things is by putting them into regular Google. If I can see the same phrase and how it’s used in different contexts, then it can help me fully understand it. Usually when this happens it’s because I’m reading things that are not as familiar to me, like academic or technical texts.

The question of machine translation

I don’t go around recommending the use of machine translation to other people, no. Most often that’s because people need a translation for a text they want to give to someone else or publish. Then I recommend that they use a human translator, of course, because that is what is needed. I think it’s important to make sure people understand that. Another reason I don’t do it is that, if I were to recommend it to someone outside of the language industry, I can’t be sure that person understands the limits of machine translation.

If someone asks me for advice on using it, say they just want to understand a short paragraph, then I tell them it is useful for that if they understand the risks involved. But I’ve never recommended it as such.

When I first started using machine translation it was a bit of a shameful thing. The attitude in the translation community was definitely negative. I didn’t dare tell people I was using it. Nowadays it seems more acceptable for the purposes I use it for. I suppose in earlier years, up to 2010, people were afraid that machine translation would take all the work from translators and eventually they wouldn’t be needed. But now I think people understand it’s just a tool that can’t do everything we need humans to do. I noticed the shift in attitude sometime around 2014 or 2015. It was discussed in conferences in a different way and people were much more interested in the topic.

 

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.

 

Max, manager at a large multinational company

Around 2010 my company acquired a factory in Brazil. Although there were a few native Spanish speakers on my team, no one knew Portuguese. Our Brazilian colleagues did not speak English. I decided I would start studying Portuguese because I had some responsibilities in the acquisition project.

While I was still learning the language, I had a lot of documents I had to review which were in Portuguese. I heard from colleagues about Google Translate and I thought I would try using it to help me with those documents, just to be able to get some idea of what is covered in them. I am by no means a techie kind of person, I’m not that interested. To me, applications are just tools you use to get things done. Google Translate was one of those.

I realized pretty much right away that there are advantages and disadvantages to Google Translate. Use of a machine translation tool is not the same thing as proficiency in a language. But if you understand that and how to use it as a tool, then it is helpful. I ended up using Google Translate for several years while learning Portuguese.

One way I used it was to translate documents from Portuguese to English, to get an idea what they were about. I translated articles in trade magazines, economic reports, excerpts from longer things like books. Things that were not that demanding technically. I would copy/paste an excerpts or whole articles for translation. I never translated anything like legal documents. I seriously doubt Google Translate would produce anything other than harm in those cases.

I usually understood the topic of the things I translated, what they were about. Something about the substance. The thing is that if you understand the context, you can take what the machine translation gives you and connect the dots and bridge the gaps. You get some building blocks and put together the whole picture yourself.

If I didn’t understand something, I could always call a colleague and ask them for clarification. We had very good cooperation with our Brazilian colleagues and they were very appreciative that I was trying to learn their language. They were helpful.

Another way I used the tool was in learning Portuguese and building my vocabulary. I would check the translations of single words in Google. Why didn’t I use a dictionary? Because Google Translate is faster. And when you look up a single word, the translation is almost always correct.

I also used it to check forms in Portuguese, to see if they were correct. I used it along with other language learning materials. When I was trying to produce Portuguese, I would check the form in things I was writing to see if it made sense. That was for informal things like e-mails. For more important things I asked colleagues about things I was unsure about.

I never made decisions based on the information I used Google to translate. Goodness no. Not for big strategic decisions or even smaller ones.

Thoughts on using machine translation

Machine translation does not equal proficiency in the other language. Nor is it a shortcut to proficiency. People are so used to getting things immediately. But it’s not that easy.

You have to have some critical thinking and understanding of the limitations of the tool. When you understand the theory and why things happen the way they do, then use of a tool like Google Translate is nice, neat and handy. I think of it like this: if you’ve studied medicine for 5 years and use information on the internet to help you diagnose symptoms you’ve been having, that is a totally different thing than a person with no background who googles their symptoms.

It is also helpful if you’ve studied the other language involved (the one you’re translating from) and know something about what it’s about. For example, you can spot wrong synonyms that the machine produces. If I were translating from a language I have no idea of, that would be a very different thing. For me it was important to be able to reflect on my own language capabilities – there’s always some kind of reflection on the language.

It should never be used blindly, with the user just accepting what machine translation gives them. 

Jani, car dealership owner

“We use Google Translate just about every day, for different purposes.”

My business partner and I own and run a small used car dealership in Finland. I’m very good with English, I speak it every day, both at home and with customers at work. As for other languages, I took Swedish and German in school because I had to. I remember some things of both languages though I couldn’t really use them to converse with another person. Nowadays we need to deal with information in those languages on a regular basis.

We buy cars from Germany and Sweden and can take care of most of the dealing over the internet: we search for cars in an internet database, decide on which ones interest us, make offers, then arrange for transport, all entirely online. The first, very short descriptions of the cars are often in Finnish since the database’s interface is translated, but attached to each is also a 2-page detailed technical report which is written by a car inspector in the respective countries. These reports are filled with technical terms and it’s extremely important that we understand certain parts of them – the paragraphs that describe the condition and possible problems with each car.  Here’s an example, in which the heading INFORMATION FROM TEST DRIVE (coming from the software application) is in Finnish, but the excerpt of the report is in German:

blog_car0

We copy/paste those parts into Google Translate to get a translation into Finnish:

cartranslation1

If you are among that small percentage of the world’s population that doesn’t know Finnish, here is the same in English:

cartranslation2

As you can see in these examples, parts of the text are translated nearly perfectly. Other parts are not as good. Between what Google gives us and what we remember of our school Swedish and German, we usually figure out what we need to know.

From time to time we also buy car parts from different parts of Europe through eBay. Since we are searching for very specific parts, we just punch in the part number and have no problem locating the products. But we often need to machine translate information on payments and delivery. We use Google Translate for that too.

Normally we translate from Swedish and German into our own language of Finnish. Generally we are confident that the translations are good enough to base decisions on. It’s rare that we have to resort to an English translation because the one into Finnish isn’t good enough.

The decisions we make on car parts involve relatively small sums, but when we’re buying cars, we are making 10 000€ – 20 000€ decisions which are based, in part, on machine translated information. Of course there is some risk involved but we are car dealers – risk is what we do!

How did we come up with the idea of using Google Translate? Everyone does Google! We started using it 3 years ago. We had a need to get some kind of idea on information in another language quickly and that was the fastest way to do it.

If we couldn’t use machine translation for this, it would slow down our operations.

Mary, machine translation researcher

Recently I’ve gotten interested in historical machine translation (bet you didn’t know that exists!) I found a fascinating study of some of the first users of machine translation. They were using the Russian-English system developed at Georgetown University in the 1960s. Most were scientists who lived and worked either in the U.S. or in Europe. The study was very comprehensive, conducted mostly through interviews with the people.

The book also mentions that a user study was done in the same time frame in Russia with users of one of the first systems there, which translated between French and Russian. There is a one-sentence mention that the study had similar results to the American one and that the researcher, Olga Kulagina, was at the time intending to write a book on the system and the user study.

That sends me on a wild goose chase for that user study. I pinpoint 1 book and 1 article by Kulagina in 1979-1982. I start with the book, ordering it through the library’s long-distance loan. Yesterday I get a note that it arrived. I excitedly go to get it and it’s not until I get back to my office that I remember a small but annoying fact.

I don’t know any Russian.

I send a note off to a student asking if they want to help me but I can’t stand to wait for her answer, I have to know right away if the user study is covered. Google Translate app to the rescue! I whip out my phone and start hovering…

book1book2

This app, as many of you know, is not at its finest in skimming books. I patiently move it through the table of contents, though, and get a fairly decent idea of what kinds of information is in it.

End result: dead end on the user study, looks like it’s not in this book. I’ll have to try the 1982 article. But it’s nice to get an answer so quickly.

And somehow I think that Olga might like the idea of someone reading her work on machine translation through a translation app in their phone.