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It has often been said that computers and the Internet are making a global village. Of course, it doesn't make much of a difference if you can't talk to your neighbors.
"To become a smarter planet, the world needs a shared vocabulary for collaboration – particularly the business community," said David Lubensky, an IBM researcher who is managing that company's universal text translator project, n.Fluent.
In the science fiction series "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams, a leech-like creature called a Babel fish was used for instantaneous translation. However, by opening the doors of communication, the Babel fish indirectly led to conflicts and wars. This is something the minds working on both universal speech and text translators certainly hope to avoid. When dealing with language things get well ... complicated.
"Translation is a human linguistic and cognitive task that involves understanding ideas and aligning sentences in context," Dr. Graeme Hirst, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, was quoted as saying in a Nov. 24 Globetechnology.com article.
He explained that sometimes the beginning of a sentence cannot be translated until the end is known or one sentence might not make sense without the one that follows it being translated. In the Globtechnology.com article, Dr. Gaelle Chevalier, who owns the SciDocs.com English/French translation service, made the distinction that something could be technically translated correctly but not be the way a native speaker of that language would say it. For example, "My name is James" can be translated into French as "Mon nom est James." However, a French speaker most likely would have said "Je m'appelle James."
According to the Globetechnology.com article, a hand-held device (not n.Fluent) that can translate in close to real time is being developed at IBM's Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. A sentence can be spoken into it in English and then the PDA will "say" it in another language. However, reportedly it works best when the users speaks clearly and slowly and makes simple statements.
David Nahamoo, an IBM research scientist in Yorktown Heights, said before there is a real-time universal translator, speech-to-text and text-to-text translators will likely be used more and more. In the Globetechnology.com article, he said he could see business conducted between speakers of different languages this way via a video conference call.
IBM is currently working on n.Fluent, its text translator. Internally the company is using it to translate documents, Web pages and instant messages. It works as a plug-in to other applications. For example, text from a word processor document can be put into one field of it and a translation would pop up in another field, according to a Nov. 23 CNET News article.
How is this an advancement over the many free translators currently available, such as Google Translate? IBM says it is more secure as it operates behind a firewall. As well, it is to be good with business jargon, which IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind said is like another language as well.
We will have to wait and see if these universal translators will live up to the Babel fish – or even better it.
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