Real-time online translation: Breakthrough technology for social change?

This article is my regular monthly column in Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World.
As anyone who has done any kind of global solidarity work will tell you, the number one problem we face is the problem of language. It’s not a problem companies face. When McDonald’s wants to summon all its managers from around the world to attend a meeting, the company decides what language everyone will speak – English.
Unions can’t do that. We believe in cultural and linguistic diversity and equality. So instead, international union meetings are incredibly expensive events due in large part to the need for simultaneous translation. And being expensive, they are held infrequently.

The Internet has long promised to help solve the problem and for more than a decade we’ve had online translators that promise much such as Google Translate, AltaVista’s Babelfish and Babylon.
Some of these tools are based on commercially available software and when you buy the software, you get the chance to tweak the dictionaries and improve the translation – for yourself. At least one global union federation that I know of invested a considerable amount of money, time and effort to customize one such translation tool in order to have it better serve trade union purposes. But all the work they did could only be used within the organisation. No one outside could benefit.
Now imagine if we could have an online translation tool that instead of relying on a fixed dictionary was actually being continually updated by those who use it. And now imagine that those using it numbered in the millions.
At the moment, even the best of these online translators usually gets it wrong. For example, Google Translate (which is actually very good) takes the French phrase “La Corée du Sud doit respecter les droits fondamentaux syndicaux” and translates it as “The South Korea must respect fundamental rights union”. A human would have made the obvious corrections, most importantly knowing the phrase “fundamental union rights”. A phrase like that is used all the time.
Google itself knows that these translations are often very poor and it does invite you to suggest improvements. But I wonder how many people actually do this.
I’ve recently learned about another service, this one offering real-time translation of online chat. It’s called MeGlobe and it promises to translate from and to 15 different languages, among them some of the key Asian languages.
This sounds like something that is bound to work poorly, and I was initially dismissive, but was intrigued to read this about their service:
“Every time you send a instant message on MeGlobe’s network you have the opportunity to make our translations better. When you notice that a translation on MeGlobe is a little off, let us know by ‘editing’ the translation. Your buddy will immediately see the corrected translation and at the same time you are contributing to our knowledge base.
“These contributions are used to teach MeGlobe to become a better translator. Every correction from the community brings us closer to our goal of erasing the borders of language.”
In other words, this service aims to make use of the “wisdom of crowds” to constantly improve its translations.
At the moment, to use MeGlobe you need to sign up and it’s free. It would be much better for this kind of tool to be embedded in existing instant messagers that people already use – including Skype, MSN, AIM, and ICQ.
I know that some trade unionists have already begun trialling MeGlobe. I hope it works. The key to it working is a massive number of people using it – and responsive software.
That second part is crucial as well. I’ve now told Google how to properly translate the French phrase I gave before, and it’s still coming out as “The South Korea must respect fundamental rights union”.
Let’s hope that MeGlobe listens better and produces better translations.

2 Comments on "Real-time online translation: Breakthrough technology for social change?"

  1. David Eden | 11/08/2008 at 15:25 |

    As a translator and interpreter, I am constantly on the lookout for tools that will make my work easier, so I will certainly try using Meglobe.
    However, I don’t hold high hopes for its ability to deliver a finished product. I do not believe that the technology available for use in translation software is capable of dealing with the nuances of translating texts that will be not only linguistically ,but also culturally appropriate.
    While I often use software to provide me an initial translation of texts that I translate, they always require a lot of work to render a finished text that reflects the original. Nuance, context, and cultural appropriateness require a type of understanding that Artificial Intelligence capabilities are not yet able to produce.

  2. Hello Eric,
    Thank you for the review about Meglobe, I found it to be insightful.
    While we feel Meglobe is capable of accurately capturing the “Gist” meaning of the messages it translates we understand that there is still work to be done.
    Our technology team is always hard at work looking for new ways to improve on our translation technology and implementing new features to make Meglobe a more useful tool.
    We understand technology such as this will never replace a human translator and that isn’t our goal. Rather, our vision is to provide the global community with an easy way to communicate with each other across language barriers.
    Although technology has exponentially increased the rate at globalization has occurred and has allowed us to transcend geography, it (Technology) still hasn’t fully addressed the barriers that language creates. We feel that Meglobe is a step in that direction.

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