How does a computer translate?

It is easy for a computer to translate single words and short phrases, but not so easy to translate entire documents. Translation is much more than a word-for-word substitution. Most languages are full of ambiguities and words that can be understood only from their context.

Dozens of words have two or three meanings, and the grammar of a sentence can also be ambiguous. The sign 'No electric passenger carrying vehicles beyond this point' can easily confuse a computer. It cannot tell whether the vehicle or the passenger is electric, or whether the vehicle is carrying the passenger or the passenger carrying the vehicle.

Colloquial or technical words make the computer's job even harder. One early translation program that was used to translate a technical text baffled engineers by constantly referring to `water-sheep'. What it really meant was hydraulic rams.

In 1954 IBM developed the first translating program. It converted simple Russian sentences into English, like 'Gasoline is prepared by chemical methods from crude oil'. But it made many mistakes and made no sense at all of some everyday sentences.

Despite these difficulties, computer translation programs have now been used by companies for some time. In their memories they have extensive dictionaries of the languages they translate - up to 100,000 words and phrases in the most advanced systems. They use them to find and substitute the nearest appropriate word in the other language. But simple word substitution leads to many mistakes, and the text needs careful editing by professional translators. They argue that this editing process takes almost as long as translating the document from scratch.

However, by 1988, systems had been developed with an accuracy rate of 96 per cent. This was achieved by making the computer better able to cross-reference words with one another and by translating whole phrases as well as individual words. Technical terms are programmed in when needed, and the computer would check ambiguous meanings and choose the correct terms. The speed of translation has also been increased.

Computers can already translate fast that is their main advantage. If a company wants to bid for a tender, it has to act quickly, but the tender may run for hundreds of pages. However inelegant the language may be, a computer could translate it faster than a human. It could take a person up to half a day to translate 1000 words from one European language to another. A computer could print out a basic translation in about 20 minutes.

The US Air Force, wanting to monitor Russian broadcasts concerning the space programme, developed the Systran translator in 1970. It has since been adapted to pairs of European languages, including French, Dutch, German and Italian.

Systran can translate 360,000 words an hour with 80 per cent accuracy. A human translator does the final polishing. Systran is used by General Motors and Aerospatiale to translate service manuals. And Canada's meteorological office uses it to translate weather reports into French.

The most advanced machine translation system in the world is Eurotra, designed to help the European Community in Luxembourg and Brussels to translate nearly a million pages of text each year.

British Telecom is developing a system for automatic translation over the phone in five languages: English, French, Swedish, German and Spanish. The computer can match what the caller is saying with appropriate words in the other language. Then a voice synthesiser passes the message on to the listener in his native tongue. At the moment the system is relatively slow and can only cope with a limited vocabulary. But similar systems are already in use in Japanese hotels, where computers are used to take reservations.


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