Translating 140 billion words a day

Developing an "interlingua". Coloured dots represent the same meaning in a given sentence. This meaning is translated in a specific language as required. Credit: Google

Google has announced last month the development of a technology (architecture?) for a faster and cheaper translation of a language into another. Why would they want a cheaper translation approach for their on line service? 

Well, fact is, their translation system is overwhelmed by requests: every day it translates some 140 billion words, or, put in other terms, they are translating a whole day of talks for 10 million people. Impressive, isn't it?  This figure is mine, based on an average 14,000 words spoken by a person in a single day. There have been quite a few studies on the matter and the average is roughly in that size, although it varies considerably from person to person (but it seems like there is not such a difference, as some web hoax indicate between men and women).

Google is supporting 103 languages but it provides translation among a few of them (like: if you absolutely need to translate from Eesti and Cebuano then  first  Eesti is translated into English and then from English in Cebuano - actually the system does this for you so the double translation is hidden).

With this announcement Google reveals the development of the "zero-shot translation" meaning that now every language is actually translated based on the intermediate meaning extracted from the source language that is promptly coded in the target language.

It is like having a universal language to express meaning, independent of any specific syntax. A sort of holy grail for linguists.

Real time translation (or quasi real time) is not perfect yet, but is quite often good enough.  I am using it quite often to "read" Chinese and Japanese, something that was completely out of reach for me just five years ago. And, looking at the statistics published by Google, I am not alone!

I bet that in the next decade real time voice translation will become more and more natural and that will change our interaction with people and our experience of foreign Countries giving a further boost to tourism. 

Author - Roberto Saracco

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