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Online translation tools changing lives

Martha Mendoza (via AP/ SMH) | April 8, 2013

Angolan blogger Rosie Alves, who launched a poetic and often racy blog "Sweet Cliche" a year ago, was confused when she saw that one in four readers were in the US. She blogs from her hometown Luanda in her native Portuguese, and counts 18,959 visits to date. In an email exchange with The Associated Press, she used Google Translate to answer questions: "I think it's very good although the translation is not 100 per cent safe," she wrote. "The best part is knowing that there are people interested in what I write, and use the Google translator to understand my texts."

Fourteen thousand kilometres away at Google's Mountain View headquarters, Och said he's hoping to launch translation services for several Indian languages next, including Malayalam, an official language of Kerala state spoken by millions of people. His team consists of computer scientists and programmers, not linguists. And there's not a single Yiddish-speaking babushka, Basque sheepherder or Vatican-trained Latinist onsite to help.

Instead, the ever-improving algorithms detect patterns in texts already translated by humans, so the more "data" that exists in the form of books and documents, the more accurate the translation. When the system gets precise enough, they roll it out to the public.

There have been a few early releases, said Och. When Iran sank rapidly into an election crisis in 2009, Google released a Persian translator, noting the program was "a work in progress". And just days after a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, they launched a buggy Haitian Creole translator that, despite glitches, was widely used by rescuers and relief workers.

This month in a supermarket in Rienzi, Mississippi, a mother and daughter hovered over an iPhone, passing it back and forth as they strolled the aisles, chatting about what they wanted to cook for dinner. It was just a few short weeks since they'd met in person, since Guan Ya had emailed her family-to-be: "No, I have never been shopping. You do not need to bring me anything. I do not know the things I like. I guess I like chocolate. Have you come to China yet? I will not be afraid. I am very happy."

When they met, she told her parents that more than anything, she wants to hear. And already doctors in Mississippi are suggesting that hearing aids and possibly a surgically implanted cochlear implant may help.

"So many things had to fall in place on both sides that it is amazing to see how God worked to get her home!" said her mum.

In those early emails, and on this day, the two typed back and forth the three English words, eight simple letters, and the three Chinese characters, a series of strokes and slashes, that mattered the most: "I love you!"



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