This article is the basis for "Real-Time Machine Translation on the Internet," which appeared in the May 1998 issue of Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. To demonstrate its subject matter, the article was translated from the English original into French, German, and Italian with AltaVista Translation Service.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Tower of Babel" (1553) Digital and SYSTRAN have joined forces to bring realtime translation to the Internet. Although this new hybrid technology rekindles old debates about machine versus human translation, it promises to bring the spirit of '95 back to the Internet and breathe new life into international technical communication.

Surfing versus fishing

In his ironic science fiction thriller, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Douglas Adams describes a cyborganic translation device, called a Babel fish, that enables humans to understand and speak any language on earth. You simply stick the device in your ear and -- voila! -- you're multilingual. No more need for flash cards, language labs, or grammar books. Just plug and play the fish.

Ready or not, Adams' fictional earpiece just made its virtual debut on the Internet. Time to stop surfing and start fishing.

Realtime debabelizer

On December 9, 1997, Digital Equipment Corporation and SYSTRAN S.A. launched AltaVista Translation Service, the first European language translation service for web content. For the first time, non-English speaking users can translate information on the predominantly English speaking web in real time. The new free service, which is hosted by Digital's AltaVista Search site, also enables English-only users the ability to understand information in five European languages: French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Not surprisingly, the server itself is called "babelfish."

You can use the service to translate raw text, webpages, or search results on the fly:

  • Translating raw text
    Go to the AltaVista Translation Service site, paste source text into the text box, select a source and target language, and click Translate. AltaVista displays the translated text above the source text.

  • Translating webpages
    Go to the AltaVista Translation Service site, copy an Internet address (URL) into the text box, select a source and target language, and click Translate. AltaVista displays the translated text above the source text.

  • Translating search results
    Go to the AltaVista Search site, enter search criteria, click Search, and click Translate next to the search result (webpage) you want to translate. You jump to the AltaVista Translation Service site. Select a source and target language, and click Translate. AltaVista displays the translated webpage.

Mind over machine

Idiomatic texts, such as the one you are reading, do not lend themselves well to machine translation. As Digital and SYSTRAN put it: "The technology works best when the text is grammatically correct and does not use too many idioms, however, users can usually understand the meaning of even a poorly written document." Judge for yourself.

All said, reading text generated by the AltaVista Translation Service is not unlike listening to "Voice of America" broadcasts through heavy state-sponsored static. The reception could be better, but you get the basic idea of what's going on outside your borders. No doubt with good reason, professional translators will build bonfires for AltaVista. But civilians -- particularly monolingual Americans -- will erect shrines to this fast, free, and easy translation service, no matter how obvious and odious its flaws.

Dé jà vu all over again

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it is. Machine translation, like the Internet itself, is a remnant of the Cold War.

After World War II, the idea of decoding natural languages through mathematical techniques became a reality. Twenty years of military-industrial research culminated in SYSTRAN, which was developed in 1968 by Peter Toma in La Jolla, California. By the late 1980s, this system enabled behemoth but loyal customers -- such as the Commission of European Communities, the U.S. Air Force, and Xerox Corporation -- to translate mountains of documents, modify their own dictionaries, and preserve original document formats during the translation process.

In the early 1990s, SYSTRAN retrofitted its mainframe-based technology to personal computers. Now, together with Digital, they are back on the world stage, this time offering free webpage translation to, of all things, individuals.

History of the future

The history of translation in general says a lot about the future of realtime machine translation in particular.

Essentially, there are three ways to translate documents:

  • Human translation
    Translation by humans who are fluent in the source language and native to the target language. Used for sensitive documents that do not contain much redundant material and are not likely to be revised frequently.

  • Computer-assisted translation
    Interactive machine translation. Includes modifiable bilingual glossaries and "fuzzy memory," which compares current texts with previous translations, allowing humans to accept, reject, or edit those translations. Requires almost no post-translation editing by humans. Used for polished retail publications that go through repeated revisions.

  • Machine translation
    Translating texts automatically. Requires the use of controlled language in original texts and extensive post-translation editing by humans. Used by military and industrial organizations large and disciplined enough to leverage economies of scale.

Unlike AltaVista Translation Service, all three approaches involve human translators to a greater or lesser degree. In fact, AltaVista is a translator's nightmare: unchangeable databases mechanically processing uncontrolled language worldwide in real time and in a public space.

Despite its obvious flaws, however, this spectacular experiment is something to keep your eyes on. Especially for people directly involved in international technical communication.

Remember 1995? In the beginning, the experts thought the web was science fiction. Then came the browser wars. In 1996 they thought it couldn't turn a buck. Then came electronic commerce. Now they say it has no content. Enter realtime machine translation. Each of these breakthroughs was market-driven. Each violated the conventional wisdom of its time. And each happened in our backyard on our watch.

Whatever you do, don't turn your back on the future.

More information

For more information about AltaVista Translation Service, see:

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© 1997-2011 Kurt Ament