Monday, March 26, 2012

What Machine Translation Can and Can’t Do

This is a guest post by Hassan Sawaf. Hassan Sawaf is the Chief Scientist at SAIC Linguistics Division where he works on the Omnifluent™ linguistics solution. He can be reached at

I have encountered quite a few myths regarding the capabilities of machine translation (MT) technology in the close to twenty years I have worked in the natural language processing and MT fields. Recently, the technology has developed to the point that most translators will use or encounter it at some point in their career. With this in mind, I have put together a short list of what MT can and can’t do so that translators can best use their time and resources.

MT Can: Translate speech-to-speech and speech-to-text.

It is often assumed machine translation only covers text-to-text translations, however recent advances in MT and automated speech recognition (ASR) technology have enabled far-reaching applications. Automated foreign language closed captioning is one example, conversing with a hotel owner while traveling would be another.

MT Can’t: Convey information instantly from all mediums or types of media.

MT technology is not yet the Star Trek “Universal Translator.” Even in the most advanced technology with fully integrated ASR, speech-to-speech and speech-to-text is near real time and a non-trivial process. After a phrase is spoken, it can be displayed and edited by a human before being synthesized and voiced by the machine to minimize potential errors. Also, MT can’t convey or communicate information reliably from all types of media such as (still or motion) pictures.

MT Can: Be used for important business, transactional or personal matters.

Many people are surprised when I tell them MT can be used in a healthcare setting. However, MT technology is already being employed by hospitals, via tablet devices, to better communicate with their patients. This is possible because advanced MTs can be tailored to specific domains or industries, so that highly technical terms, like “hilus of the lung” are as easily recognizable as common words like “home.”

MT Can’t: Be used in situations when style, creativity or instant clarity is required.

MT is not ideal for language requiring stylistic or creative input such as marketing or legal documents. While the technology can be used in a healthcare setting to distribute vaccines, it would not be helpful in a situation requiring instant clarity or in advertisements where specific words and their connotations are chosen carefully and have significant cultural meaning.

MT Can: Be customized for highly accurate translation

MT technology, on average, can achieve 80 percent accuracy compared to a professional human translator. In some cases, this level of accuracy can achieve enough understanding for the purposes of the communication. True hybrid machine translation (HMT) technologies, which integrate statistical and rule based translation, can achieve close to 95 percent accuracy once they have been tailored for a specific industry or domain. In my experience, the accuracy of MT is the biggest misconception among translators who may not have experienced the more sophisticated, customized technology.

MT Can’t: Reach 100 percent accuracy.

Even with the next generation of MT technology it is extremely unlikely that it will ever achieve 100 percent accuracy. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the best explanation is that human communication is extremely complex. Even if I am in the same room, viewing the same presentation as my colleague who is speaking my native tongue I might only understand 95 percent of his intended meaning.

MT Can: Be used by translators to be more efficient

I have heard many analogies, but I like to compare MT to a car. You can get to where you want to go without it, but by using the technology you are going to get there faster and/or more comfortably. There are many kinds of vehicles and its important to select the type based on need, however, the translator is still in the driver’s seat. In the past, only the largest language service providers could afford MT, but now many vendors have Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings making the technology affordable for freelance translators.

MT Can’t: Replace human translators

The amount of data each year is increasing exponentially, and the increased rate of globalization means more and more of it needs to be translated. MT is a tool that will make human translators more efficient so they can focus their time on content that needs the creative, stylistic human touch.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Translation as a Comic Strip

This is a fun blog/book/comic strip, which features a translator and his adventures in comic format. There are so many metaphors for translation and perhaps translation is a comic strip could be one too, but regardless of that, check the site out.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Read a Translated Book: A Challenge and a Campaign

[Note: a slightly different version of this article was published in the Huffington Post yesterday.]

I run an award-winning international literature book group here in Norwich. As far as we know, it’s the only book group in the UK that just reads translated literature. This is surprising because translated literature is a gift that allows us to learn about other people, other places, other perspectives, other ideas, other ways of being, other lives. Without translations, we would be so much poorer and our lives would be much narrower.

However, many people are afraid of translations; translated literature seems harder somehow or less authentic. But that needn’t be the case.

So I want to challenge you to read more translations. Start with just one book. You can pick a Nobel Prize-winner, for example, or maybe one of the books that’s up for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year. Pick a translated thriller, if that’s your favorite genre, or try some poetry. It doesn’t matter which book you read; the aim is just to read translated literature.

Then the next part of this campaign is to keep reading translated literature. Start with one book and then try to read one or two translations a year, or even more. Encourage your friends to do so as well.

If you live in Norwich, come to my book group. If not, you could even start a book group of your own that just focuses on translated literature. If you want some tips, here is a document I created to help people start book groups like the one I run.

Pass the word on. Tell others what books you’re reading and what you think of them. Post comments here or on other blogs and discuss your experiences.

I challenge you to read just one translated book. I think it will change you and I suspect you’ll want to keep reading translated literature. Translations aren’t scary; rather, doing without them is.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Translation Course at Arvon

A few years back, I went on a wonderful writing course at Lumb Bank, one of the Arvon foundation’s centers. It was a beautiful location and I really enjoyed my week there. Now, for the first time, Arvon is running a translation course, with Michael Henry Heim, Anthea Bell, and Sasha Dugdale. It should be fantastic and I hope some of you can attend it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Interview Tips, Part 3

This is the final post in my series of interview tips. This one focuses on the interview itself along with some general final advice.

Interview tips

--I have been surprised at the way some candidates interrupt interviewers and start answering questions before they’ve completely heard the questions. Sometimes that leads to interviewees offering different information than was asked for. It’s also downright rude to interrupt.

--Take notes while people are asking questions. Sometimes you get double or even triple questions disguised as one and it’s easy to lose track. A candidate might start answering one question and then forget what the others were. Write brief notes to yourself about what you are being asked and also about what you might like to say in response. That’s much preferred to having the candidate say, “I’m sorry, but I forgot what your other question was.”

--Prepare answers to typical questions. Don’t look shocked when you’re asked questions such as “Why have you applied to this job?” or “Where do you see yourself in 5 (or 10 or 20) years?” or “What classes or programs do we teach that you might like to be part of?” or “How does your writing/translation work fit into our department?” You should expect questions along those lines and be prepared to answer them fairly smoothly, without sounding unsure of yourself. Look at books on interview techniques and ready yourself to answer the most common interview questions.

--Look at each panel member as you talk, making eye contact with each one in turn. Do not focus on one or two members and ignore the rest. Although that can happen when someone’s nervous, it can be disconcerting to be stared at by the speaker.

--Pay attention to the subtle signals the panel members are giving you when interviewing you. They may be nodding to show you’ve said enough and that they’re ready to move on, or they may look bored or distracted. Don’t keep rambling on if you suspect that they’ve heard enough; finish your statement and silence yourself, awaiting the next question. I’ve been in a number of interviews where the candidates talk on and on, repeating themselves, giving more or different information than requested, and boring the panel, even though a panel member might have tried to signal to the candidate that we were ready to go to the next topic. Displaying a lack of attention to people’s body language says something about how you might behave in the classroom.

--Don’t talk about things other than what you were asked. Candidates understandably try to get a lot of details into their answers and to subtly show off, but try not to do too much of it or to go too off track. Especially don’t discuss personal details such as your recent holiday, your partner/spouse and/or children, your maternity/paternity leave, your health, how much money you spent to come to the interview, your political views, or other such things; those topics are usually irrelevant to the question at hand. Again, panel members might worry about your conduct in the classroom if you appear to be an “over-sharer”.

--Don’t sound frustrated if you are asked something in more than one way or if you have to repeat information you included in your covering letter or CV or presentation. Not everyone has read or seen everything you’ve provided and also some questions are standards and must be asked of every candidate regardless of whether the candidate also gave the information elsewhere. Don’t say, “Well, as I already told you...” or “As you will have seen from my CV...” Simply give the information requested.

--Show you’ve done research about the place. Mention what you’ve learned from perusing the website or other publications. Name people you’ve had contact with. Show that you haven’t just applied to any old job at any old employer – you want this job with these people at this place. Prove it. Some of the best candidates have said things such as, “I noticed that you offer a course on X. That’s something that I’d really like to be part of because...” or “I first learned about your university when I met Dr. X at a conference. She told me...” or “You don’t yet offer an MA-level course in X, but I thought I could develop that because...” This shows initiative.

--On the other hand, don’t show off any negative research you’ve done. I was interviewing possible interns for our translation center and I was shocked by how many of the interns criticized us, sometimes by mentioning a typo in one of our publications (typos happen to the best of us, I’m afraid), or by saying they would do something better than they thought we did at the moment, or by quoting someone they knew who didn’t like an event we ran. None of this is appropriate. It’s great to offer suggestions for activities you might like to be involved in and for contributions you’d plan to make, but don’t make your potential employer look or feel stupid. It’s just common sense.

--Have some questions for us in turn. Prepare a few questions about the university as a whole, the specific department, the students, and/or the research/writing/translation work done there. Don’t ask for information that is available on the website, such as how many students there are or what classes we teach. Also, don’t ask about when you might receive a sabbatical or tenure, because that makes you seem as though you feel entitled to the job and to various perquisites already. Show an interest, but don’t overdo it.

--When you are thanked and dismissed, thank the panel in return for their time, and immediately leave. I’ve seen candidates stay on, awkwardly making small talk or asking more questions. The panel most likely has a very strict schedule that they need to keep to and once your interview is over, they don’t have more time to chat.

Final notes

Many of these tips might seem very obvious, but over and over again I’ve seen candidates do the complete opposite of what would actually serve them best. After their interviews, the panel has exchanged looks that meant, “That was awful. Let’s hope the next one is better.” That’s not the impression you want to leave the interview panel with.

The tips offered here can be boiled down to: be clean and neat, polite, well-organized, and well-prepared. That won’t guarantee that you get the job, but it will help you stay in the running. And since many of us who write and translate want or need another job as well, anything you can do to make yourself more appealing as a candidate can help.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Interview Tips, Part 2

This post continues on from the last one, with more interview tips. This one focuses on the presentation, which is your opportunity to describe your writing/translation work/research to a captive audience.

Presentation tips

--Make sure your presentation reflects the brief you’ve been given. If you were asked to discuss your research or publications, as is common in academic interviews, do that. Don’t simply recite a list of your publications or grants and don’t talk about your teaching or administrative experience. If we have things we want to ask you about those topics, we will do that during the interview. The presentation is a chance for you show your enthusiasm for your subjects and to teach us about them; in other words, we learn about your writing/research and your teaching style by listening to you. Make the most of the opportunity.

--Do not give a handout and then just read from it, or put words on your PowerPoint and then read from them. The screen or handout should be adding to your presentation rather than being a useless extra. It’s also really boring to sit there, listening to someone read aloud from a sheet of paper. Use the handout or the screen for key points or quotes, not for the entire thing.

--Practice your presentation in advance. It’s very awkward to sit while someone struggles for words or appears not to have any idea what to say. Be very well prepared; just as you might prepare for a reading from your work, prepare for your presentation.

--Along the same lines, time yourself. If you’ve been given 15 minutes to talk, that doesn’t mean 10 and it doesn’t mean 20. It means 15. Use your time well and fully.

--If you have books or other items you want to bring as props to illustrate your talk, that is fine, as long as they don’t take away from what you are saying. Pass them around during the question session, not during the presentation itself, or they will distract your audience.

--Listen to questions and comments from the audience completely and respectfully before answering them. I’ve seen candidates get annoyed when someone has misunderstood or questioned an aspect of their presentation. They then interrupt, sigh, roll their eyes, or otherwise show their irritation. This behavior tells us how you might treat a confused student or colleague.

--Don’t be afraid to admit to ignorance when responding to a question. Many people try to bluff their way through difficult questions, but it actually is much more professional to say, “Thank you for mentioning that author. I haven’t heard of her book, but I’ll look for it...” or “Actually, I never thought about the topic from the perspective you’re proposing. Thank you for the suggestion. I’ll have to think more about it...”

--Thank your listeners for their time and their questions and comments.