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Rules-Based Machine Translation Redux
Posted by Donald A. DePalma on February 26, 2009  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization, Technology, Market Data, Business Globalization, Best Practices
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Most of the interesting news about machine translation in the last two years has been about advances in statistical machine translation (SMT), with the older rules-based (RBMT) often playing second fiddle. While SMT garnered its share of headlines, the RBMT developers continued enhancing their products and channels. Much of what they've done in the last year has been focused on improving the desktop MT experience so that more users have foreign language capability at their fingertips without an excursion to machine translation websites.
  • PROMT. In 2008, the St. Petersburg-based ISV introduced @promt 8.0 with better translation quality, enhanced usability, integration with Trados, support for Office 2007 and OpenOffice including e-mail, and greater compatibility with Windows Vista. PROMT also began a beta test of its free online MT service. As important as its technical advances were changes to PROMT's corporate structure: 1) Renova Capital, a European private equity firm, acquired controlling interest in the company; and 2) PROMT opened its first U.S. office in San Francisco. These two moves promise to strengthen the company's ability to market its wares across Europe and, importantly, in the American market where its presence to date has been uneven.

  • SDL. In October, SDL repackaged and upgraded its MT software into its Automated Translation Solutions product line, greatly improving desktop integration in the process. Besides adding a long-anticipated hook into its SDL Trados desktop translation memory tool, SDL added AOL IM chat and Office 2007 support, including a plug-in for the Windows clipboard to enable quick control-character operations like CTRL-T for "translate." SDL also exposed its API for integration with other applications.

  • SYSTRAN. The Paris-based provider of MT software led the race to the desktop with its Version 6 upgrade in 2007, resulting in an almost 40 percent increase that year in sales due to its improved integration with Office 2007, e-mail, and the web. Specialty editions with graduated pricing and features support a wide range of usage types. The company's desktop sales in 2008 dropped following its healthy 2007 of Version 6 sales, indicating a ceiling on the market for desktop MT solutions. SYSTRAN reportedly plans a new edition for later this year.

  • Translution. Offering not a desktop tool but rather a service using a rules-based MT engine, this U.K.-based service provider holds a patent on the "Translation of Electronically Transmitted Messages." Patent EP1567944 describes a process by which a source e-mail is translated on the Translution server and sent to recipients. Subsequent requests for translation always go back to the ur-message on the server, thus avoiding the expected degradation of quality if a message had been translated from English to French to Russian to Albanian and so on.
All three of the desktop providers offer both inside-the-firewall, server-based versions and free web MT. Their no-charge websites are meant to draw in users who will, the vendors hope, buy licensed editions of their software; they all acknowledge that this is a tough draw compared to Google's plan to draw eyeballs to its advertising-sponsored offerings.

Why buy a desktop tool instead of using Google Translate and any of its emerging mash-ups? We've heard a few good reasons: 1) The integration with the desktop and e-mail is tight; 2) users can manage their own multilingual data; and, most importantly for many corporate users with whom we've spoken, 3) private data that might include sales figures, proprietary data, or even pledges of undying love don't find their way into Google's public training corpus. However, if SYSTRAN's experience is any guide to the market opportunity -- which we believe it is -- desktop MT software will remain a niche arena characterized by sales spikes whenever there's a product upgrade. How can they change this model? Output quality, credibility, and information security lead the list of ingredients. Then mix in stellar, seamless integration with desktop productivity tools and e-mail clients. Unfortunately, the magic ingredient may still be a soupçon of price cuts.


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