Japanese now a little less lost in translation

November 23rd, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

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If technology is truly meant to bring us all closer together, then recent translation services are doing their part to make the world a smaller place.

Flashy items like NEC’s translation glasses and the new iPhone application that can convert text from pictures will get plenty of attention once they’re tested and widely distributed, but in 2009 a number of other innovations have already begun to affect how Japan’s residents interact with the world and each other.

Google has certainly been at the forefront. Their “Translate this page” links are now built into Japanese search results, and the dedicated Translate application has made huge strides in turning select phrases, web pages and PDF documents into your preferred tongue. Google Reader has opened the blogosphere even further with the option to change RSS feeds into English or other languages. Twitter, the year’s other web darling, continues to grow in popularity here, and the Tweetie iPhone application‘s translate function is helping more non-Japanese speakers to keep better track of the country’s 140-character community.

These services are far from perfect, however.  Complex grammar and slang can still render Google’s translations nearly useless, and the casual nature of tweets and their abbreviated format can make the converted text unreadable. But it’s important to keep in mind that these services are all in the early stages, meaning that by this time next year the internet could be awash in global chit chat. One possible silver lining to today’s algorithmic inadequacies could be the reassurance that computers have not yet rendered humans redundant. Translation and interpretation by real people (especially in niche fields) is still a huge business.

That business may be about to expand further, thanks to Japanese start-ups like My Gengo, a web-based service emphasizing what they call “casual translation“: shorter, more personal text as opposed to, say, massive contracted projects for corporate and governmental clients. They also started offering translated Tweets from Japanese celebrities and are planning new services to help read and publish in non-native languages.

Because of the low barrier of entry, services like My Gengo may have a larger cultural impact than sci-fi movie props like the translation glasses. Politicians and the wealthy will always be able to afford language assistance – human or otherwise – but a true cultural shift could happen once the world’s housewives and high-school students have access to the same services.

Japanese blogger Chikirin points out that now only “important” information is translated: headline news, business information, political agendas, etc. But what would happen if everything was automatic? What if a search for a new way to cook chicken & tomatoes produced recipes never seen in your language? What new audiences and alliances will form when every Web page and chat room in the world is instantly translated? Just a few years ago, questions like this would have simply been fodder for third-drink futurists at a Silicon Valley cocktail party, but it won’t be long before chatting across the language divide – in real-time – is a reality.

And when that day arrives, I’ll ask: What goes well red bell peppers and shrimp?

ALSO: I want to hear from you. How do you think translation and interpretation changed in 2009? What other innovations should be mentioned? I’d really like to update this post with your input, so drop us a line via the comments.

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3 Responses

  1. Jason,

    Really really glad that you’re picking up on this topic, which is such an important one. I think you’re choice of words (“a little less lost in translation”) is bang on: the situation (in Japanese anyway) has gotten somewhat “less bad”, as opposed to “better”. As do many other J-E translators, I have a lot of reservations about the idea of MT applied to this particular language pair, and I get very frustrated at programmers thinking that any text-text transfer problem should require just a few lines of code. Cisco recently learned that it’s not quite so easy: http://www.telepresenceoptions.com/2009/11/ciscos_telepresence_translatio/

    In any case though, companies like MyGengo are on an interesting track, will be eager to watch their progress. At Global Voices we’re tackling these problems every day, and let me tell you this is a tough nut to crack. But the lesson from crowdsourced translation jobs like Facebook is that language barriers need not be seen exclusively as a problem: translation can actually can be a very effective way to build a community (Cucumis is a good example of that: http://www.cucumis.org).

  2. Hi Chris!

    Thanks for your input. Yes, I’ve seen Cucumis, but didn’t know where to fit it in this post. I know this piece only scratches the surface, so please keep us updated on trends in the translation world, or just keep tweeting about them via @shioyama. It’s important now, but as you know, translation/interpretation will continue to grow more vital in the coming decade.

  3. Thanks for mentioning myGengo – we’re convinced that the trends you’re talking about are strong and growing, not just in Japan but worldwide.

    As for the changes in 2009, we released a report recently (http://mygengo.com/report/translation-industry-2009 – to be translated into Japanese on the 8th Dec) with a pretty similar outlook to your own. It’s worth reminding ourselves (especially those of us from a Western background) that whoever you are, whatever language you speak, there are more people online that *don’t* speak your language than those who do. This is a great leveller already and hopefully will become even more of an encouragement for people to develop easier ways to communicate across languages.

    The examples of Cucumis and Global Voices are interesting and important because communities and individuals are showing they can create good-quality translations around topics that matter to real people, as opposed to pure business communication – much as Wikipedia has created a commerce-independent resource that’s immensely valuable. We welcome more of this, as I think it’s an important part of the web.

    The quote from Chikirin is a tricky question though – how do you start to create a seamless multi-lingual web that allows us all to read and publish *everything* whatever the language?

    I think we’ll get there through a combination of:
    - a more semantic web (i.e. ‘smarter’ websites that allow better interaction with machines);
    - better integration between human translators and machine tools;
    - more investment in translation tools.

    But it will be a while coming, especially for Asian European languages as they differ *so* greatly. The sad fact is that, for now, if this article and comments were machine-translated into Japanese using a fancy pair of glasses, the reader wouldn’t really have an idea what we are talking about!

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