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Translation tech gets Olympic push

Japan may not be the best in the world when it comes to speaking English, but it remains a pioneer in developing cutting-edge translation technology.
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, the nation is once again plotting to surprise the world, this time with high-quality, real-time machine translation systems.
Public and private institutions are working eagerly to develop and upgrade the technology so it can easily be used by tourists, whose numbers are growing sharply




How does electronic translation work?


Real-time translation systems include applications that can be installed on smartphones, computers or other gadgets linked to the Internet. One merely selects the targeted language, speaks into the device and waits for it to translate the words in audio or visual form.

The words of the speaker are sent by the app to a computer server, which analyzes the voice and selects the closest translation from a vast collection of phrase pairs in its database.
The more the app is used, the more sophisticated it becomes. This is done by gradually increasing the amount of usable data on the server with the user’s consent.

Machine translation is the product of over 60 years of research and is now entering its prime thanks to advances in cloud computing and machine learning, said Eiichiro Sumita, a senior researcher at the government-funded National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) who has more than 35 years of experience in the field.

What is the government’s aim for real-time translation?

Last April, the internal affairs ministry announced a global communication program, which, using NICT’s translation engine, is aimed at helping people around the world engage in borderless communication.

The ministry wants to provide real-time machine translation services at sightseeing, shopping and medical venues to help visitors who may feel hesitant about coming to Japan because of the language barrier.

The ministry’s vision reflects the government’s tourism goal, which is to raise the annual number of inbound travelers to 20 million by 2020, from 13 million in 2014.

How exactly would the technology help foreign visitors?

Although not always grammatically perfect, the output of current real-time translation devices is practical enough to enable the simple conversations desired by sightseers, experts say.
With the 2020 Olympics in sight, VoiceTra (NICT’s official translation application) was used on an experimental basis by volunteers at the Tokyo Marathon last month, which drew some 5,000 runners from abroad. Each volunteer was encouraged to install the app on his or her smartphone to offer support in multiple languages.

Meanwhile, NTT Docomo Inc. has developed Jspeak, an app that translates real-time phone conversations via voice recognition technology and its own original database.

Will machine translation eventually be able to replace professional translators?

Both professional interpreters and developers of machine translation systems agree that electronic systems will never be able to replace the professionals.

Mikako Miyahara, a veteran Hiroshima-based interpreter who specializes in information technology, said machine translation will not replace humans because people are unlikely to trust machines for important work.

But Miyahara also expressed concern that some clients of machine translation services, who are usually monolingual, tend to depend too much on low-cost translation and disregard the quality and skills of professionals.

“More and more clients now ask translators to merely do post-edit work, which is to fix machine translation output into natural expressions, at extremely low wages,” she said.
NICT’s Sumita agreed.

“You have to bear in mind that machine translation can cover only a small portion of what man can do”
no matter how much it develops, he said.

“The good thing about machine translation is you can rely on it anytime you need it in everyday situations where you don’t need professionals,” he said.

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Our latest news

Translation tech gets Olympic push

Japan may not be the best in the world when it comes to speaking English, but it remains a pioneer in developing cutting-edge translation technology.
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, the nation is once again plotting to surprise the world, this time with high-quality, real-time machine translation systems.
Public and private institutions are working eagerly to develop and upgrade the technology so it can easily be used by tourists, whose numbers are growing sharply

Preparing for Machine Translation: What Machines Can and Can't Do

There is nothing especially novel about machine translation, a technology that reaches back to 1951, when a team from IBM and Georgetown University first demonstrated a computer’s ability to translate short phrases from English into Russian. In 63 years, the machines involved in machine translation have evolved. What a warehouse-sized computer could do in 1951, a laptop can do even better today.