RE: TRANSLATIONS - value and when will we ever learn

Subject: RE: TRANSLATIONS - value and when will we ever learn
From: Susan Harkus <Susan -dot- Harkus -at- xt3 -dot- com -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 29 Jan 2001 11:12:27 +1100

Hi Tasos,
I hope you take heart from the positives you read in the mail responses to your question: the mails from Jane Carnell, Geoff Hart, Bill Burns, Brent Jones and Winfried Reng.

This very subject came up for discussion a few months ago and the same misconceptions and prejudices came out. For example, the issue of a word having two meanings (file) or being both a noun and a verb... or translating informal expressions such as "flat out" in "The cheetah runs 80 miles flat out".

It seems to me that most of the people who replied are not familiar with the advances in machine translation. For example, Systran resolves the noun & verb issue for "file" very simply through the custom dictionary that comes with its software and WHY would anyone use a colloquial expression to test the usefulness of machine translation for technical documents.

There are two parameters that influence the quality of machine translation output. If you manage those parameters well, you will still need the help of a translator to brush up the output BUT you will reduce your initial localisation time and money by more than 50% and you will have greater confidence in the technical consistency of the translations.

Parameter 1 = the quality of the translation source
Bill Burns raised the issue of controlled development of the source. For most of us on this list, we are looking at English source. Machine translation software has to PARSE the source. Really, the software is at the mercy of the quality of the source in the same way as our readers. The sentences that our readers read twice (or three times or four times) because they didn't quite catch the meaning the first time around will CERTAINLY throw the machine translation software.

Parameter 2 = the features of the software
It is worth exploring the machine translation software that is out there in the world. I know that I used an inexpensive version of Systran to test the feasibility of using machine translation software to reduce localisation time for our documentation set. Even the inexpensive version of Systran gave me a powerful custom dictionary feature. Took a little time and a few mails to Systran customer service to learn how to exploit the dictionary fully, but I was impressed with the results.

I set up a research project at the beginning of 2000 to determine whether the company I was with could leverage machine translation software for localisation. The speed to localise everything from system messages to user guides to Help was critical to the success of the business because when the product was launched in English-speaking markets, it needed to be almost immediately available in a number of NON-English speaking markets.

The results of my "writing for translation" + machine translation software approach are available at
The PowerPoint presentation of the research project is attached. The slide notes provide the presentation commentary.

I would just say this: with good machine translation software, a well-developed custom dictionary and well-written source the translated output is an acceptable draft that can be brushed up by a human translator. In my testing, a French native speaker "brushed up" the machine translation output, taking between half an hour and an hour for an average of three pages. That is, 17 seconds to generate the draft output and say, an hour to brush up the awkward or clumsy renditions for every three pages. And professional translators would doubtlessly take less time.

Once you have your first translation, you would move it progressively into Translation Memory for maintenance (updates and changes). Big companies like Microsoft are saving millions of dollars in localisation costs through the effective use of translation memory. They must know something! (Not because they are big but because they are saving SO much money.)

The last time I posted a mail recommending that people keep their translation options open, someone wrote back most patronisingly. I say this: forget about the anecdotes... oh yes, we can laugh... remember that we are writing technical documentation and that we need to reduce localisation costs. Have a different custom dictionary for Castillian Spanish, Mexican Spanish and Chilean Spanish. Leverage from the advances in translation technology. Investigate the costs.

Don't think that by leveraging translation software you are abandoning the key to a good communicating translation = the translator. Softissimo had a GREAT paper on how they used their software and a translator to translate a famous report that came out of the States last year. They compared their timeframe and output with that of the twenty translators who took X man days to translate the report.

If time to market is an issue for your company, you will ALWAYS evaluate what you can gain from technology, including translation technology.
Susan Harkus
Sydney, Australia

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