Machine translation has been a topic of interest for many language users and businesses for the past 60 years – can a machine match the skills and understanding of a trained translator or interpreter, and will we ever be able to rely on machines to translate accurately?

Many translators have felt that translation or interpreting by a machine would never match the accuracy and understanding of idiom that a human translator or interpreter brings.  With advances in computing speeds computer scientists have been making progress in providing some automated translation of written language, but please don’t rely on it, and never use any of these automated systems to translate business documents or your website! They may be cheap or even free, but it’s a false economy – failure to get your point across in your translated brochures or inaccurate, misleading or hard-to-understand materials will be counterproductive overseas.

However, it now looks as though speech translation may just have got a step closer.

On October 25th Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s Chief research Officer, was speaking at Microsoft Research Asia’s 21st Century Computing event, and he demonstrated an innovation in speech translation (or interpreting). Using a technique called Deep Neural Networks, which is based on human behaviour, researchers and Microsoft have been able to improve speech recognition systems.

Until recently, error rates of around 20% were standard on machine interpretation of speech, but the new research has reduced the error rate considerably.  Instead of 1 word in every 4 or 5 being incorrect, now the error rate is 1 word in 7 or 8. This looks like a genuine breakthrough in improving speech translation.

Mr Rashid’s presentation showed how spoken English is translated into Chinese speech.  Step 1 takes the speaker’s words and finds the Chinese equivalents. Then step 2 reorders the words, as Chinese word order is different to English.  The machine then renders the speech in the voice of the speaker, which is a great step forward.

There will still be errors in the translation, however the error rate can only improve and in a few years’ time we may be looking at the first speech translation machine to pose a genuine threat to the livelihood of a trained interpreter.

But what if you have a brochure that needs translating a little quicker than that, or an interpreter for a meeting?  Not to worry – until Douglas Adam’s vision of a babel fish translating any language you hear into your own becomes reality, you can rely on la Academia to provide top-quality translation and interpreting services that will help you grow your overseas business.  Translation of brochures and marketing materials requires more than just translation of words – send us details of your project and let us advise you on the best approach to your overseas markets!