Spotlight on research: Translation and technology
Spotlight on research: Translation and technology
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Spotlight on research: Translation and technology

This week's Spotlight on Research is with Dr Sharon O'Brien from the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies

You are interested in how technology can help us translate text from one language to another. What do you look at?

“We have all probably used Google Translate or a similar program to translate a word or phrase when we are abroad, but there are times when large texts need to be translated into another language, like a technical manual or a policy document or a piece of literature.

Computer technology to automate or assist with translation is improving, and that is challenging and changing the work that translators do, and in many cases the translators get a lot out of these tools.

My research looks at how humans interact with that computer technology and whether it affects the translation process.”

How do you measure how the humans are faring with the technology?

“We use surveys to find out how translators feel and we use technology to log the keys they are typing and match that with the translated texts being produced.

We also use eye-tracking technology that measures where they are looking as they translate, and sometimes we ask the translator to speak their thoughts aloud during the process of translating a text, perhaps to tell us that they didn’t like a translated word and why.”

And what have you been finding?

“Overall we find that the quality of machine learning or computer programs for translation is good, but the quality produced depends on the topic and the two languages involved, and that quite often for the more technical documents if you compare translation by humans and by machine they are both of high quality.”

You are starting a new project now – one that will help translation at times of crisis. Can you explain?

“Yes the INTERACT project is looking at how technology could help to communicate with people in a language they understand during a crisis like an earthquake or a flood, nuclear contamination or an outbreak of infectious disease, or even if you break a limb in a country where you don’t speak the language and you need medical help.

It’s a European Horizon 2020 project between DCU and academic centres and companies in Europe, the US and New Zealand.”

What problem is it looking to address?

“If you find yourself in a crisis but you don’t understand the language in which the instructions for safety or how to respond are being given, then you may not know what to do. Risk communication is a big area of research – it’s important that people get the message about how they can protect themselves, but there’s a big gap in being able to provide that information in multiple languages.

That’s what we are looking at, seeing what policies are needed, making recommendations and looking at ways to quickly train volunteer translators. We are getting lots of interest from humanitarian agencies who have had this problem on the ground where the people they are trying to help may not understand the language they use, and having a means to translate text could be a huge asset.”

How did you develop an interest in machine translation?

“It was when I was an undergraduate at DCU, studying for my BA in Applied Languages. In the final year we learned about translation theory and tech and I had this Eureka moment and found them both fascinating.”

Do you think that computers will take over translation completely?

“There’s an interesting discussion ongoing about that, asking if translation as a profession will actually die out because the computers are getting so good at machine translation.

Some people argue that translation needs a kind of creativity that computers can’t offer, but I think artificial intelligence is making rapid strides into creative processes.

At the moment the discussion about machine translation mainly focuses on more technical documents rather than fiction and literature, but I think we will see big advances in the technology and its use in the next five to 10 years.

It’s very exciting and I am particularly driven by the idea that we could use that to help people who find themselves in a crisis situation.”