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Translation Tools: New Approaches to an Old Discipline

Automated translation tools have been around for a long time, and new techniques are boosting their performance. But use them with caution.

By Gary Anthes
August 13, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Sometimes things get lost in translation.

For example, type the question, Automated language translation  is it an idea whose time has come? into Googles English-French translator, then enter the result of that into its French-German translator, and finally ask Google to translate the German back to English, and you end up with this: Automated language translation is it an idea, from which the time came? Not too bad.

Now do the same with this sentence: Reboot your computer and try again. Youll wind up with this: Their computer and attempt still again load. Perhaps not good enough for your multi­lingual user manual.

Language translation software isnt likely to allow you to lay off your bilingual staffers  at least not right away. But applied with discrimination and lots of preparation, translation tools can be fantastic productivity aids. And researchers say new approaches to this old discipline are greatly improving the performance of the tools.

Ford Motor Co. began using machine translation software in 1998 and has so far translated 5 million automobile assembly instructions into Spanish, German, Portuguese and Mexican Spanish. Assembly manuals are updated in English every day, and their translations  some 5,000 pages a day  are beamed overnight to plants around the world.

It wouldnt be feasible to do this all manually, says Nestor Rychtyckyj, a technical specialist in artificial intelligence (AI) at Ford.

Nestor Rychtyckyj
Nestor Rychtyckyj
The car maker uses Enterprise Global Server from Systran Software Inc. in San Diego, but licensing the software was just the first step in automating Fords translation activities. High-level English instructions, such as, Install the muffler, are written by engineers and then parsed by a homegrown AI program into unambiguous detailed directions, such as, Attach bracket No. 423 using six half-inch bolts. Each instruction is then stored as a record in a translation database.

Ford also had to develop dictionaries of terms and phrases that are unique to automobile assembly and to Ford. Most of the effort we spend on this system is building glossaries, and they change frequently, Rychtyckyj says. But your translation results are a lot better if you put in a lot of work upfront.

Still, he says, it may be easier to maintain a glossary than to find a translator who speaks English and Portuguese and understands automobile technology and terms.

Systrans tool uses a tried-and-true translation technique called rules-based translation. Such systems use bilingual dictionaries combined with electronic style guides containing usage and grammar rules. (For example, in English, the verb usually follows the subject, but in German, it often comes at the end of the sentence.) These commercial translators are typically supplemented with application-specific glossaries like those used at Ford.

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