Page last updated at 19:34 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

BBC debate demonstrates power of machine translation

The debate under way

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.

logo

A season of reports exploring the extraordinary power of the internet, including:

Digital giants - top thinkers in the business on the future of the web
Mapping the internet - a visual representation of the spread of the web over the last 20 years
Global Voices - the BBC links up with an online community of bloggers around the world

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.

COMMENTS PER LANGUAGE
English: 5,626
Spanish: 2,767
Portuguese: 1,781
Arabic: 208
Persian: 146
Chinese (simplified): 126
Indonesian: 31

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.

It may be the translator becomes more of an editor
Geoffrey Bowden, general secretary of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC)

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."



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Tech giants rush Farsi versions
19 Jun 09 |  Technology
Getting lost in the translation
13 Oct 03 |  Magazine
Má tá Gaeilge agat, gabh go Google!
28 Aug 09 |  Northern Ireland

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific