Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Milking the Language Barrier
January 15, 2010 - By: - In: Machine Translation - Comments Off on Milking the Language Barrier

Businesses can only spread as far and as fast as they can find people speaking a common tongue, but researchers at IBM may have the breakthrough. CNN’s Matt Ford’s reports on n.FLUENT at IBM.

The multinational currently has 100 staff working on an internal project named “n.Fluent” that offers instantaneous translation across a variety of platforms.

“n.Fluent” began in 2006 as one of 10 innovations sponsored by IBM’s chairman Samuel J. Palmisano. The company decided that the language barrier was a key issue, both for global businesses and companies with clients worldwide and so resolved to find ways of addressing the problem.
Vernacular and jargon can be particularly problematic for translation software, so “n.Fluent” has been designed to learn from its mistakes and pick up specific terms used within IBM.

To do this the project has been opened up to all 400,000 staff working for IBM around the world, and uses this “crowd sourcing” to access their expertise to feedback on the project.

Over a two-week period in October last year IBM launched a “worldwide translation challenge” to its workforce, which resulted in two million words of text being translated. Incentives in the form of charitable donations and other prizes were offered to staff who took part.

“Every single interface has a pop-up window, so if you happen to be bilingual you can make corrections,” David Lubensky, an IBM specialist in the “real-time” aspect of translation systems, told CNN.

“Many IBM-ers have more than one language, so we can get them to translate and use that to improve the quality.”

They got about 2 million words, which is not bad, but not so great, and at great cost, diverting a certain percentage of company resources for this big push. Getting expert users to contribute, if done properly, is a great efficiency.

Using computer-aided technology IBM will be able to leverage that expensive  contribution through repeated use. After that initial push, how much time will people continue to spend on developing it alongside their regular responsibilities?

The business case for this project must be very interesting. Love to know the rationale and see some of the numbers.

But have you noticed something? The key to the productivity behind crowdsourcing is the free lunch. These systems save money by not paying translators. Why buy a cow, if you can get the milk for free, as my Mom once never said to my  sister.  That’s fine if you can get the fans to do it, but if you are using your own high-priced talent, its coming out of your pocket. Not to say that invalidates the model. It may still be cheaper, or otherwise impossible to provide an alternative.

So I wonder if people will ever get tired of doing translation for free? Or will it become  like giving blood, and become the social obligation of bilinguals to provide this essential, free service. Recognition the only reward, ea virtual badge on their computer screen avatar.  Napoleon observed that “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

But our own  mercenary translators  earn their salt, and rightfully insist on prompt payment.  The difference is interesting.

I’ll take it one step further.  The whole internet is built on the free-lunch something-for-nothing concept. The Web has made it so you can’t even give information away. Why would FaceBook pay the translation of their websites when they could get it for free, which is exactly the same way they get their content in English. And at the galactic core of the internet, looking over the event horizon is the web black hole called Google. All our content. Yes, yours, and yours and yours. And we’re just thankful people can find it up there. Google gets it for free. We just have to pay them to let people find it.  And that’s why I right to you today, and close gentle reader with a quote from Sameul Johnson, author of the Dictionary of the English Language, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

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