Translators Use Computers To Help Change 'Oui' to 'Yes'

A GIANT United States telecommunications firm last year asked Michael Collins of DTS Language Services to translate 20,000 pages of technical manuals from English into Spanish in just four months. Normally this kind of project would take his company's 12 translators eight months to finish.

In order to meet the tight deadline, he tried an unconventional approach. He let computers do the first draft of the translation. Then the firm's translators went through each page, polishing the draft. Using this method, he was able to cut the production time in half without sacrificing quality.

DTS, the North Carolina-based translation company, is one of the few translation firms in the US that utilizes automatic translation software to increase productivity and reduce costs.

"An average human translator can translate one page per hour, while a translator aided by computer software can process 10 to 15 pages per hour," says Denis Gachot, president of Systran Translation Systems Inc., of La Jolla, Calif., one of the two major translation software producers.

When it comes to handling a huge volume with a quick turnaround time, "machine translation is the only way to go," says Ron Fournier, president of Lexi-tech, a Canadian translation company in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Lexi-tech translates publications between English and French that range from manuals for the US and Canadian defense industry to instruction manuals for firms such as Digital Canada, IBM, Northern Telecom, and AT&T. Since Mr. Fournier started using machine translation four years ago, Lexi-tech's business has more than doubled. "Now I have more business than I can handle," he says. Fournier projects that his firm will translate 65,000 pages for the telecommunications industry this year.

One-half of Systran's $3 million in sales in 1991 came from the US market. This represented a 25 percent increase over 1990 sales in the US, Mr. Gachot says.

When DTS's Mr. Collins started using translation software made by Systran's main competitor, the Logos Corporation, of Dedham, Mass., two years ago, about 60 percent of the sentences required minimum or no editing by human translators. Most of the errors are not grammatical mistakes, but involved terms the software didn't recognize, Collins says. By adding terms to the program's dictionary, the accuracy has improved, he says. By teaching the program to distinguish different parts of speech, a 90 to 95 pe rcent accuracy rate was reached, says Lee Chadeayne, president of Wordnet, an Acton, Mass.-based translation firm.

INDUSTRY experts warn that percentage figures can be misleading. When it comes to letters, memos, and legal documents, accuracy drops drastically, they say.

"I am not going to try to translate magazine articles or love letters" with machine translation, Fournier says.

One of the major drawbacks of machine translation is the cost of translation software and hardware such as mainframes or big desktop computers known as workstations.

Yet with the price of hardware coming down, more companies can afford the translation software, says Deborah Bombaci, manager of market development for Logos. For example, basic Logos software with a workstation such as the Sun SPARCstation sells for about $40,000, she says. Currently, Logos sells seven language pairs (e.g. English to Spanish) that range from $25,000 to $125,000 per pair. Systran offers 10 language pairs with a monthly lease of $3,000 per pair.

For a translation company that does not want to make this kind of investment, Systran offers an on-line translation service where a customer can send the text through a modem. Systran's fee is 5 cents a word for machine translation and an additional 6 cents a word for post-editing. An average page of computer-generated text costs $27, versus the $30 to $40 rate charged by translation agencies, according to Systran's Gachot.

Despite this kind of cost saving, many translation companies say that they have "absolutely" no use for machine translation.

"It doesn't work in the literary field," says Karl Kummer, former president of the American Translators Association. Several years ago, he tested automatic translation software for the literary translation projects in his organization. The result was a "disaster," he says. "The post-editing almost amounts to retranslation."

OME industry experts say there is a place for machines where perfect translation is not needed. For example, the US Air Force has used Systran's software for more than 20 years to scan technical literature such as engineering and space science from Russian into English, says Muriel Vasconcellos, president of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas, in Washington, D.C.

The market for scanning on-line databases or news wires is estimated to be at least three to five times the size of the commercial translation market. Currently, companies worldwide are spending over $25 billion annually on translations, according to William Hohenstein, president of Logos.

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