E.g., 04/08/2020
E.g., 04/08/2020

Open Hearts and Open Minds: Three Ways Machine Translation is Changing the Developing World

03 February 2015

Machine translation is often met with antagonism by translators, fearing sharp declines in rates and hikes in overhead, not to mention the steep learning curve to effectively and efficiently use MT technologies and implement postediting workflows. However, a closer look at three real-world examples proves that translators are profitably and effectively supporting on-the-ground infrastructure and development and facilitating communication in the developing world by taking a risk and opening their hearts and minds to MT.

  1. Rapid response in emergency situations

    Mission 4636 was a crowdsourced translation project that facilitated communication between Creole-speaking Haitians and English-speaking emergency responders during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. A worldwide microtasking platform was created to translate, categorize, and geolocate people and information While the project was successful in facilitating communication and saving lives, despite the formidable challenge of a low-resource language, the project also opened the door to the possibility of MT in emergency situations. Robert Munro, the brains behind Mission 4636, is now working to develop an “MT Crisis Cookbook” to develop a highly domain-specific MT for emergency situations and natural disasters, but one that would also include under-resourced languages. 

  2. Preventing the disenfranchisement of speakers of minority languages

    Carnegie Mellon University’s AVENUE Project is one of numerous projects around the world working to save indigenous and minority languages, developing and improving the available electronic corpus to improve the MT methods and resources available for Mapudungun, a native language of southern Chile, as well as for Quechua, a native language spoken in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. By also involving native speakers, a human-engineered set or rules is developed, facilitating communication between minority-language speakers and Spanish-speakers and democratizing communication in a world of socioeconomic disparities. While MT is often used as a scape goat in the developed world for scrubbing linguistic eccentricities, the question remains as to whether it can make a difference in saving endangered minority languages.

  3. Facilitating voice-based communication

    While SMS messaging systems are now available in virtually every corner of the earth, there still remains a need to support illiterate and semiliterate populations, particularly in rural and under-resourced languages. Lwazi is a telephone-based spoken dialog system that uses MT to support government communication efforts in South Africa, a country with 11 official languages. The project is highly ambitions, creating an electronic language corpus in all 11 official languages, building human language technologies (HLTs) to create automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) resources for all 11 official languages, and then developing an automated telephone service to launch these services.

While it is clear to everyone in the translation industry that MT is more than just Google Translate, it remains to be seen whether MT can resist commodification when used for non-profit community objectives, including humanitarian outreach and disaster relief. The question as to what constitutes “essential” communication and the minimum requirements for “fit-for-purpose” translation are also likely to grow and change as quickly as MT algorithms.   

Erin M. Lyons is a full-time French-Italian-English translator, medical writer and consultant and the Owner of BiomedNouvelle. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Translation at the University of Maryland and continues her work to develop BabelNouvelle®, a mobile-based translation technology employing crowdsourcing and machine translation to facilitate medical services in the developing world. Erin has a BA in Romance Languages and Literature from the University of Chicago and an MA in Italian and French Translation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Contact Erin at elyons(at)biomednouvelle.com