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Real-Time Translation for Chat, SMS, and E-Mail
Posted by Donald A. DePalma on January 28, 2008  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization, Technology
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In June 1963 the United States and the Soviet Union established a round-the-clock hotline for speedy communication between their leaders during periods of international tension like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. President John Kennedy and First Secretary Nikita Khruschev originally relied on teletype technology, but by 1999 the countries added a secure telephone connection. This hotline and its red telephone on each end of the connection became a standard component of films during the Cold War standoff, with the U.S. and Soviet leadership each relying on their trusted interpreters to keep the bombers and missiles from flying. Thus far it's worked (our fingers still remain crossed), at least with respect to U.S.-Russian interactions.

Since then, hotlines have long been a fact of life for health problems, legal issues, would-be suicides, and students struggling with homework. They allow businesses and organizations to provide specialized resources from a centralized location. Increasingly, due to the large number of non-Anglophone consumers, patients, and defendants in countries like the U.S. and U.K,, these hotlines have seen a marked uptick in the number of people requiring services in another language -- and the concomitant need for advice about topics in those languages.

Unlike the U.S. and Russian leaders, few people can afford to have an interpreter standing by their side, so that puts the burden on the hotline organizers. They have a few choices: 1) ignore the caller (not a good practice for suicide hotlines); 2) keep a pool of bilingual advisers standing by (too expensive in many cases); 3) bring in over-the-phone interpretation services like Language Line or LSA (often too expensive); or 4) turn to technology. Given the high cost of labor and geographic distribution of interpreters, technology looks like the winner. Here are a few approaches:
  • IBM has been built its ¡TradúceloAhora! (TranslateNow!) program around its WebSphere Translation Server so that schools and non-profits can translate websites from English to Spanish and e-mails bidirectionally (English<>Spanish), thus bringing Spanish-speaking parents into closer contact with their children's schools and teachers.

  • Google's Translation Service for Google Talk (or for any IM client that supports Jabber) supports chats in real time via machine translation. The service will ultimately use the company's statistical machine translation engine for higher quality simultaneous translations during chat sessions. Transclick uses various MT products to do the same for 16 languages in IM, SMS, and e-mail. It uses specialized domain lexicons to pump up the quality.

  • SpeakLike's hybrid approach to synchronous IM translation debuted at Demo 08. Its model employs online interpreters who vet the output of a machine translation engine during a real-time chat. The company has developed learning algorithms so the interpreter's corrections feed back into the MT engine. Initially, SpeakLike will support English<>Spanish and English<>Chinese -- and add other languages as demand dictates. The company's first application is for consultation with physicians. It expects to offer its promised speech version later this year.
Can you expect perfect translations from machine translation? Not really, but Transclick's addition of domain-specific dictionaries and SpeakLike's hybrid human-machine approach promise much higher levels of accuracy than MT alone. With growing multilingual populations at home and big markets abroad, the need for real-time interpretation and translation will grow quickly in hotlines, in call centers, for customer support, and for business and leisure travelers. Of course, former presidents in Crawford, Texas (357 days and counting) will still be able to requisition an interpreter when they need one.


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Keywords: Interpreter management systems, Machine translation, Translation, Translation technologies

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