BBC debate demonstrates power of machine translation
By Dave Lee
BBC World Service
If everybody in the world could communicate freely with each other, no matter which language they spoke, what would happen?
That question formed the basis for SuperPower Nation Day - an experiment in multi-lingual debate and discussion.
By using a specially created website, users from around the world could post and reply to each other's messages, even if they did not share the same language.
The experiment was part of the BBC's SuperPower season, a series of programmes, online reports and events designed to examine the extraordinary power of the internet.Free conversation
Representatives from more than 20 of the BBC World Service language services translated for people who attended the six-hour event at Shoreditch town hall, or called in by telephone.
Meanwhile, comments online were translated using software created by Google, allowing users to write in their own language before seeing it translated into six others instantaneously.
English, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Persian, Indonesian and Spanish were all supported.
Just before 1pm, local time, the first message appeared.
"We use human translators rather than machines as we believe they are more reliable.
"But let's give this a go."
It was an apt comment. Could a machine really break down language barriers?
For the most part, Yes it could. Soon after the experiment kicked off, many users began to express their delight, and surprise, at being able to converse easily using the technology.
"I believe this can work!" wrote Nathana in Brazil.
"This experience is useful to appreciate the beauty of languages in the world. As I said before 'WAAO!'" wrote Eugene, in Italy.
Messages get through
For Google, it was perhaps the toughest scrutiny of their translation software to date.
While their Translate product has been well-adopted by web users to quickly make foreign language websites understandable, how it would stand up in the face of quickfire conversation - with all the slang and local dialect that came with it - was unknown, even to Google themselves.
"This is the largest translation project I´ve ever worked with," said Chewy Trewhella, new business development manager for Google.
"There's always going to be slang, but we´re getting better at it all the time."
The translations were far from perfect in places, but Mr Trewhella added: "It's about trying to get the message across... [users] are happy with 80-90% effectiveness."
Here's an example. Dowry Allowathb of Khartoum, Sudan, submitted a comment in Arabic on the topic "If you could say one thing to the world, what would it be?" which came out in English as:
"That the budget of one war enough to satisfy the hungry Africa, not to mention the budget arm of one of the major powers."
Not perfect, but intelligible.Long way to go
Tom Leitch, development lead on the project for the BBC, was equally pleased with the results, saying it worked "fabulously - better than was hoped".
He looked forward to trying it out another platform.
"I would quite like to run it on a platform like Twitter so it's already part of the web fabric, rather than hosting it on our own site," he said.
Manuel from Vigo, in Spain, commented (in imperfect translation): "Since I say to my daughters that the profession has a great interpreter present, but a black future."
But Geoffrey Bowden, general secretary of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), said he was not worried that machine translation would put his members' jobs at risk.
"It may be the translator becomes more of an editor.
"I think we've got a long, long way to go."
There would always be some things, like company slogans, that could only be translated by humans, he added.
Mr Trewhella agreed.
"We don't want people to think this is as good as human translation," he said.
Miles Osborne, a specialist in machine translation based at the University of Edinburgh, noted that some participants opted to type in English over their native language - possibly because they thought they could do a better job than the software.
Prior to the experiment, he anticipated problems between certain languages - particularly with Chinese.
Some users in Beijing reported that the Chinese section of the site had been blocked, but Mr Osborne was left encouraged with the performance of the software.
"I don't see anyone complaining about the actual translation," he said.
"In the past [translating] was a really painful thing to do - that's not true anymore."