Automatic Translation in Multilingual Electronic Meetings
Electronic meetings, e.g., chat rooms and bulletin boards, can be more efficient and effective than traditional, oral discussions, but until only recently, online groups speaking many languages could not benefit from machine translation (MT). Although it is possible for linguists to provide translations for the group members as they read comments during a multilingual discussion, this is not feasible for large groups and many languages. As a solution, we propose a fully automated multilingual meeting system, and an example of its use in a meeting with comments typed in English translated to Dutch and Russian illustrates its potential to reduce many multinational communication barriers.
In the past, oral meetings involving speakers of multiple languages required participants to adopt a common language, e.g. English, or use interpreters. In the former case, all participants might not be fluent in the non-native language and could be uncomfortable speaking it. In the latter case, human interpreters could be expensive and difficult to schedule.
Electronic meetings can support multiple languages with the integration of machine translation (Fügen, et al., 2007; Lim &Yang, 2008). Using such a system, group members could contribute typed comments in their own native languages while others' comments typed in different languages are translated automatically for presentation on the appropriate screens.
In this paper, we describe six Web-based machine translation services that can be used to assist with the understanding of foreign text and seven electronic chat systems that provide translations between language pairs. Then, we introduce a new, locally developed multilingual electronic meeting system that provides automatic translation among 41 languages. Finally, in a test of comprehension accuracy, we rank the languages using five simple phrases.
Web-based machine translation
Since the late-1990s with the introduction of Babelfish on the Web (Yang & Lange, 1998), free, online translators have been available for use on text, documents, and Web pages. Currently, there are at least six free services (shown in Table 1) that provide support for different numbers of language pairs (e.g., English to Spanish, French to Russian, Chinese to English, etc.).
Table 1: Free Web-based translation services
Using these Web sites, chat room participants could translate foreign comments, but conducting these translations can be confusing to group members (Flanagan, 1997). Group members are not likely to put forth the effort when faced with many comments in different languages, and a meeting facilitator providing translations for the discussion using these systems will be overwhelmed with the task once the group size reaches 5 or 6 with more than 2 or 3 languages (O'Hagan & Ashworth, 2002). More staff members could be added to help with the translations, but coordination would be difficult as they lost track of which comments were translated and which were not. Instead, automated translation is needed in multilingual electronic meetings.
Automated multilingual meetings
Despite the first multilingual application appearing in the early 1990s that automatically translated between English and Spanish in an electronic meeting (Aiken, et al.,1992; Aiken, et al., 1994), at least two United States patents were filed several years later which claimed to do essentially the same thing:
1. US Patent 5966685 - System for parallel foreign language communication over a computer network (Flanagan, et al, 1999)
US Patent Issued on October 12, 1999
Abstract: A system is disclosed which allows for an electronic discussion group user to communicate with another user who speaks a different language. Machine translators and other software are incorporated to translate messages, thereby creating parallel discussion groups in different languages.
2. US Patent 5987401 - Language translation for real-time text-based conversations
US Patent Issued on November 16, 1999 (Trudeau, 1999)
Abstract: A real-time language translation technique for text-based conversations. The messages forming the text-based conversation amongst a plurality of participants to the conversation are translated in real-time either from a user language to a conversation language of the conversation, or from the conversation language to the user language. The result is that the user is able to seamlessly converse in a text-based conversation (in the conversation language) using a language other than the conversation language. The invention is particularly advantageous for on-line text-based conversations, wherein users of on-line text-based conversations are able to seamlessly converse with each other in different languages.
Subsequently, at least seven applications (shown in Table 2) were developed that provide automatic translation for instant messaging between pairs of individuals.
Table 2: Online chat systems with automatic translation
However, multilingual meetings usually involve more than two people, and they often use more than two languages. We believe there is no system available that can accommodate such a group by automatically translating among several languages at once, but there is a clear need for such an application.
To provide support for large, multilingual groups in an electronic meeting, we developed a prototype system that allows participants to type comments anonymously and simultaneously while being able to read all others' comments at the same time. The software has been designated Polyglot ("many tongues"), and it uses the Google Translate application programming interface (API) to perform translations between any of 41 languages (1,640 language pairs). Unlike many other MT systems, Google Translate is based upon a statistical translation system in which a language model is trained on billions of words of equivalent text in many different languages, e.g., comparing the Bible written in German versus the book written in Russian, and comprehension results have been very good (Geer, 2005). Relatively few evaluations of free, online MT systems have been conducted (e.g., Aiken, et al., 2006; Bezhanova, et al., 2005), but one study (NIST, 2005) of 20 free, commercial, and research MT systems showed that Google Translate was the most accurate in three of four tests.
At least seven mashups, i.e., software that combine two or more tools to create new services (Ennals & Garofalakis, 2007), have already been developed with the Google Translate API including MultiTranslator that provides translation in many languages at the same time (Programmableweb, 2009), and researchers are developing new applications every day (Grubinger, et al., 2008).
Figures 1 to 3 show an example of how Polyglot can be used by a multilingual group discussing the G20 protests in London (Telegraph, 2009) in English, Dutch, and Russian. Each user types a comment in the top textbox, and within two or three seconds, it is available for the other participants to read in their native languages at their own computers in the lower textbox.
Figure 1: English participants' view of multilingual meeting
Figure 2: Dutch participants' view of multilingual meeting
Figure 3: Russian participants' view of multilingual meeting
Translation comprehension is still far from perfect because Google Translate's accuracy varies with sentence and vocabulary complexity and by language. In an attempt to judge Polyglot's potential performance, two objective, English-speaking evaluators ranked the 40 non-English languages supported by Google Translate based on the scales provided by Guyon (2003):
The equivalents for the five English sentences below were obtained for each of the 40 languages from http://www.omniglot.com/language/phrases/index.htm and translated back to English with Google Translate.
As shown in Table 3, the evaluators were able to understand all of the translations back into English, but the last five took more effort.
Table 3: Ranking of 40 non-English languages supported by Google Translate
(lower score better)
The multilingual meeting prototype described here can support large groups using up to 41 languages with translations provided automatically within a few seconds via a link with Google Translate. Early results indicate a high level of comprehension for many translated comments, and future research will investigate the accuracy of more complex sentence translations as well as how the prototype performs with other languages.
Published - September 2009
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