An era of translation by everybody, for everybody

by Chris Salzberg

The Internet has brought us closer together than ever before, or so the cliche goes. But has it really?

In one way, at least, it hasn’t. Language barriers, the Internet’s last frontiers, continue to trump technology, marking out dividing lines online just as they do offline. Beyond these barriers, new worlds of content have grown and evolved largely in isolation from one another.

For those of us tempted to venture across these barriers, the question arises: How can we access all this content?

A University of Tokyo research team headed by Associate Professor Kyo Kageura is proposing that we translate it — online, and together. Kageura’s group — in collaboration with the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) and publishing company Sanseido — is developing a free online translation-aid system to assist volunteer translators in doing just that.

“People are brainwashed into thinking that translation is only for specialists,” he explains. “They think it’s difficult, that it’s not fun.”

Kageura is convinced that this need not be the case. “Once people overcome their preconceptions, translation is actually an interesting process,” he says.

This is the motivation behind QRedit, the first version of which was released earlier this month. Supporting both English-to-Japanese and Japanese-to-English translation, with Japanese-language menus (and English-language ones in the works), the system is designed as a “one-stop translation site” for novice translators.

In Japan alone, there are several thousand volunteer translators in need of such a service, who, for example, assist NGOs, write open-source software manuals and edit Wikipedia.

Given how many people have some proficiency in both English and Japanese, the potential user base is much larger; with interfaces in other languages, it could be huge.

Dr. Takeshi Abekawa, chief developer of the system, says that translators spend 20 to 60 percent of their time consulting online dictionaries or looking up information on the Web, which blocks the flow of translation. QRedit, he says, slashes the time taken by making many resources accessible from a single, simple interface.

A user who creates an account at the Web site Minna no Honyaku can simply click on a browser button to call up QRedit in a separate window. The source text can then be uploaded into the left-hand side of the interface by inputting the page URL or direct copy-pasting, with the right-hand side reserved for typing in the translation.

The user can work directly from this split-screen interface, doing away with the need to flip between source and target texts. Words in the source text are linked to Web-search sites and Wikipedia, with a range of other references further incorporated into the platform.

A high-quality dictionary by Sanseido is the only proprietary component of the system, and it is complemented by functions that make it easier for translators to spot idioms and technical terms and look up their meanings. A proper-name dictionary is also under development.

Having such a wide range of resources positioned immediately at their fingertips puts many options, and a great deal of responsibility, before the translator, who is the ultimate decision-maker in the translation process.

And this is exactly the point.

“Most translation-aid tools out there assume human beings are not that clever,” Kageura says. “We assume they are.”

This is one of the reasons Kageura’s team bucked a recent trend and eschewed machine translation as a “first step” in the translation process. They believe you get a better result by removing the obstacles that slow human translators, rather than relying on automation to speed the process.

And it seems they are right: Their experiments indicate that QRedit’s interface can cut translation time by 20 to 30 percent.

That saved time could mean more than just increased productivity. If the system helps make the translation process more enjoyable, and that results in more people getting involved in volunteer translation, then QRedit — and tools like it — could usher in a new era of online translation. In overcoming the barriers that divide the Web, this new era could change how we see the Web — and how we see the world.