Information technology

My computer is a polyglot

A few months before deploying its troops in Iraq, the US government called on an army of translators to determine whether the 12,000 page report provided by Saddam Hussein satisfied the requirements of the UN disarmament experts. Without the help of machine-assisted translation, this work would have taken many more professionals. “The situation in the world economy and the growth of the Web have combined to produce an unprecedented obsession with machine translation,” explains Simona Gandrabur, a researcher in the Laboratory for Applied Research in Computer Linguistics (RALI) at Université de Montréal.

The translation aids available today are much like built-in spelling and grammatical software in microcomputers. Just as a spell-checker shows us a typographical or spelling error by underlining it, or a grammar checker proposes a correct phrase, these automated aids display, in real time on the user's screen, a series of one, two, four or five words likely to constitute the best translation. The user may accept the proposed phrase as is, change it or simply ignore it.

The word sequences that seem most appropriate come from texts in the program’s data bank. However, the percentage of correct suggestions obtained from programs is still low. The research at the RALI seeks to improve the quality of these suggestions. This computer programmer and her colleague George Foster at the same Laboratory have recently managed to improve the performance of translation programs.

The limitations of machine translation, however, remain very much in evidence. “We are making progress. But we are still far from the day when whole books can be translated automatically in as many languages as we want; that’s almost a utopia,” laughs Simona Gandrabur.

Selected in a major international competition, Simona Gandrabur and George Foster will be at the Center for Language and Speech Processing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from June 30 to August 22 to lead a team evaluating “translation aids,” interactive software packages that can assist translation professionals.

Researcher: Simona Gandrabur
Telephone: (514) 343-7484


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