Japan may not be the best in the world when it comes to speaking English, but it remains a pioneer in developing cutting-edge translation technology.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, the nation is once again plotting to surprise the world, this time with high-quality, real-time machine translation systems.

Public and private institutions are working eagerly to develop and upgrade the technology so it can easily be used by tourists, whose numbers are growing sharply.

Below, we take a look at the current situation of the machine translation industry and what the future holds for real-time translation devices.

How does electronic translation work?

Real-time translation systems include applications that can be installed on smartphones, computers or other gadgets linked to the Internet. One merely selects the targeted language, speaks into the device and waits for it to translate the words in audio or visual form.

The words of the speaker are sent by the app to a computer server, which analyzes the voice and selects the closest translation from a vast collection of phrase pairs in its database.

The more the app is used, the more sophisticated it becomes. This is done by gradually increasing the amount of usable data on the server with the user’s consent.

Machine translation is the product of over 60 years of research and is now entering its prime thanks to advances in cloud computing and machine learning, said Eiichiro Sumita, a senior researcher at the government-funded National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) who has more than 35 years of experience in the field.

NICT’s official translation app, VoiceTra, currently covers 27 languages, including such exotics as Urdu, Sinhala and Dzongkha, for text. For speech, it is “good enough to make understandable 90 percent of what you want to say” in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese, if short sentences are used, Sumita said.

What is the government’s aim for real-time translation?

Last April, the internal affairs ministry announced a global communication program, which, using NICT’s translation engine, is aimed at helping people around the world engage in borderless communication.

The ministry wants to provide real-time machine translation services at sightseeing, shopping and medical venues to help visitors who may feel hesitant about coming to Japan because of the language barrier.

The ministry’s vision reflects the government’s tourism goal, which is to raise the annual number of inbound travelers to 20 million by 2020, from 13 million in 2014.

It is planning to allocate ¥1.38 billion in fiscal 2015 to improve the overall quality of real-time speech translation technology and increase the available languages to 10 or more, including Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian, to cover 90 percent of the tourists who come to Japan.

The plan to host the Olympics has no doubt increased the urgency of the project, Sumita said, because public and private entities alike have started working together on it on an “all-Japan basis.”

How exactly would the technology help foreign visitors?

Although not always grammatically perfect, the output of current real-time translation devices is practical enough to enable the simple conversations desired by sightseers, experts say.

With the 2020 Olympics in sight, VoiceTra was used on an experimental basis by volunteers at the Tokyo Marathon last month, which drew some 5,000 runners from abroad. Each volunteer was encouraged to install the app on his or her smartphone to offer support in multiple languages.

Meanwhile, NTT Docomo Inc. has developed Jspeak, an app that translates real-time phone conversations via voice recognition technology and its own original database.

The carrier aims to improve Jspeak’s output quality enough to achieve a TOEIC score of 700 for Japanese-English translators by 2016.

That means it would be able to accurately translate documents involving official announcements or the details of business meetings, said Minoru Eto, managing director of NTT Docomo’s innovation management department.

Will machine translation eventually be able to replace professional translators?

Both professional interpreters and developers of machine translation systems agree that electronic systems will never be able to replace the professionals.

Mikako Miyahara, a veteran Hiroshima-based interpreter who specializes in information technology, said machine translation will not replace humans because people are unlikely to trust machines for important work.

“If there is just a tinge of doubt in translation output, communication as a whole may end up in doubt,” she said, warning that if the Japanese government wants to promote intercultural understanding with its global communication program, using machine translation alone won’t work.

But Miyahara also expressed concern that some clients of machine translation services, who are usually monolingual, tend to depend too much on low-cost translation and disregard the quality and skills of professionals.

“More and more clients now ask translators to merely do post-edit work, which is to fix machine translation output into natural expressions, at extremely low wages,” she said.

NICT’s Sumita agreed.

“You have to bear in mind that machine translation can cover only a small portion of what man can do” no matter how much it develops, he said.

“The good thing about machine translation is you can rely on it anytime you need it in everyday situations where you don’t need professionals,” he said.

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