IMAGINE A WORLD …
Imagine how excited you’d have been, when you were growing up, if someone had told you that in the future, we’d live in a sensationally advanced, high-tech society in which everyone had a device—a set of goggles, say—that allowed them to communicate in every human language?
You don’t even have to imagine it. Remember the Babel Fish? The TARDIS? It wasn’t supposed to happen until the late 22nd century, but surely you remember how Ensign Hoshi Sato used the universal translator to invent the linguacode matrix? (Alien interference caused the translator to malfunction and Commander Saru—who spoke a hundred languages the old-fashioned way, like we do—saved the day.)
So why aren’t you more excited about living in the future? Because we do.
We have a universal translator—and it works. Mankind has built an astonishing science-fiction device that allows us to read—and write—every major human language in the world.
- Are you interested in the technical details? Keep reading!
- Just want to know how to use it? Go here
THE REVOLUTION IN MACHINE TRANSLATION
In November 2017, Google unveiled a new automatic language translation application. It did so discreetly and with little fanfare.
But the accomplishment is revolutionary.
Research into machine translation, inspired by Claude Shannon’s work in information theory, began in earnest in the 1950s. Early prototypes relied upon bilingual dictionaries and hand-coded rules, and the results were garbled. So were the later prototypes. Characteristic was an infamous 2013 fiasco involving the Turkish daily Yeni Şafak and the old version of Google Translate. Taking improvisational license with an e-mail from Noam Chomsky, Yeni Şafak invented a few Chomsky quotes, ran them through the original Google Translate, and proudly published the result:
This complexity in the Middle East, do you think the Western states flapping because of this chaos? Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West. I’ve seen the plans works …
“Milkport”—from the Turkish süt liman, meaning “smooth sailing”—became Turkish shorthand for an amalgam of ludicrous machine translation and fake news.
Most Americans, when they think of machine translation, still imagine that kind of gobbledygook.
During the Cold War, the US government took a keen interest in machine translation, for obvious reasons, and 1964 established the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee to evaluate progress in computational linguistics in general, and machine translation in particular. The committee examined such specimens as this:
Thus, the examination of some from fundamental RADIOBIOLOGICESKIX problems shows, that in this a field still very much NEREWENNYX questions. This is clear, since cosmic RADIOBIOLOGI4 is very young RAZDELOM young science efforts of the scientific different specialties of the different countries of the world successful PRODOLJENY will be expanded there are. . . .
The Committee’s conclusions were grim. The committee shared the assessment of R.T. Beyer, an American physicist known for his translations of Russian and German physics journals into English:
I must confess that the results were most unhappy. I found that I spent at least as much time in editing as if I had carried out the entire translation from the start. Even at that, I doubt if the edited translation reads as smoothly as one which I would have started from scratch. I drew the conclusion that the machine today translates from a foreign language to a form of broken English somewhat comparable to pidgin English. But it then remains for the reader to learn this patois in order to understand what the Russian actually wrote. Learning Russian would not be much more difficult. Someday, perhaps, the machines will make it, but I as a translator do not yet believe that I must throw my monkey wrench into the machinery in order to prevent my technological unemployment.
In 1966, the committee published a report deeming machine translation hopeless. It discouraged the Department of Defense and the CIA from further funding the task.
The idea that machine translation cannot work, that the subtleties of human language will forever be beyond the grasp of machines, appeals to human vanity—or to human humility; the Tower of Babel story comes to mind.
But metaphysical and theological speculation aside, consider the facts. Here is an translated from the front page of China’s Peoples’ Daily, translated from the Mandarin.
Only by looking back at history and remembering the past can we profoundly understand that the red political power is hard-won, that the new China is hard-won, and socialism with Chinese characteristics is hard to come by.
The key to the eternal vitality of our party and its continual success from victory to victory lies in its ability to remember its original heart and keep in mind its mission.
Yudu, Jiangxi Province, is the starting point for the 25,000-mile long march of the Central Red Army. On May 20th, General Secretary Xi Jinping came here to pay tribute to the Central Red Army’s Long March Departure Monument. He cordially met with the descendants of the Red Army and the representatives of the revolutionary martyrs in Dudu County. . . .
General Secretary Xi Jinping reaffirmed the communists’ initial intentions, missions, ideals and purposes in the old revolutionary districts, and injected powerful positive energy for the majority of party members and cadres to remember their initial intentions, keep their missions in mind, and continue to struggle.
How well would Google’s new, November 2017 machine translation tool translate this? That’s a trick question: That is Google’s new machine translation, directly from the Chinese, unedited by human hand, uncorrected, and now available for free to any English-speaker who consults the website of the People’s Daily.
Any Anglophone, even one who knows not a single Chinese character, can now read any Chinese newspaper on the internet, from front page to last.
If this is astonishing, it is not surprising that few realize what has happened. The major news aggregation algorithms only serve English-language results to their news feeds. For reasons of habit and (they think) efficiency, they never bother with non-English sources, because, insofar as they think about it all, they presume that the cost in human resources and time in accessing non-English sources cannot be justified by the market for their consumption.
This presumption is obsolete. Google Translate can translate almost instantaneously and accurately all the major and most minor newspapers of the world, be they written in Mandarin, Farsi, or Russian. The translation is free. It is often of higher quality than that provided by professional translators.
Only a handful of specialists truly grasp how much progress has been made in machine translation in the past year alone, as suggested by the fact that The New York Times published but a single article about the rollout of Google’s new service, titled “The Great AI Awakening”—and other major papers published no article at all.
The article notes that the day after Google rolled out the new system, “it demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.” The system continues to learn at this speed.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE NEWS
The great paradox of our era is that it has never been easier to communicate with and understand the rest of the world—but the public is less informed about that wider world than it was when news of it travelled over telegraph wires.
Anyone with an Internet connection can now read the a newspaper from any country in the world with a speed that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. The Internet is a geyser of information, much of it accurate; accessing it requires no effort, no expense, no trip to the library.
Nothing stops the curious reader from studying, say, Komsomolskaya Pravda to learn more about how Russians see the world. You don’t need to wait for a friend to bring a print copy back from Moscow, or trudge off to a library to read archived copies on microfiche. Most astonishingly, you can read it without knowing word of Russian.
But it will never show up in your news feed.
Here’s why. Everything you see is chosen by Google’s search algorithms—or by Facebook’s, or Twitter’s—and these algorithms automatically discard all this priceless foreign-language news.
Google ranks its results by two criteria: relevance and authoritativeness. “Relevance” is straightforward; it’s just a matter of matching the search terms with the words on a site.
“Authoritativeness” is more complex. Google updates the criteria continually, looking for signals like the age of the domain, and whether the story can be confirmed by multiple sources.
There are humans involved in this process. Google employs 10,000 people—an international team of “search-quality-raters”—to assess search results. They appeal to a 167-page document titled Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. They use these human assessments to refine their algorithms.
English still dominates the internet. About 30 percent of the websites of the world are in English. But 70 percent are not.
If you live in an Anglophone country, none of the foreign-language sites will show up in your Google search unless you specifically tell your browser to look for them. If you search for “trade war with China,” for example, you won’t receive results in Chinese. For that, you have to enter the term 与中国的贸易战.
That term returns 475,000,000 items, but you won’t see any of them in your search results, because they’re eliminated at step 1: relevance.
HOW TO MAKE THE TRANSLATION SUPERHIGHWAY WORK
How to change your browser:
In Chrome, you go to
- Step 1: Preferences
- Step 2: Settings
- Step 3: Advanced
- Step 4: Languages
In Firefox, you go to
- Step 1: Preferences
- Step 2: Options Preferences
- Step 3: Settings
- Step 4: Languages
In Safari, you go to
- Step 1: Go to the webpage you want to translate
- Step 2: The Smart Search field displays the Translate button
- Step 3: Click the Translate button
- Step 4: Then choose a language
In Internet Explorer, you go to
- Step 1: Click the Tools button, and then click Internet Options.
- Step 2: Click the General tab, and then click Languages.
- Step 3: In the Language Preference dialog box, click Add.
- Step 4: In the Add Language dialog box, select a language from the list, and then click OK.
In Microsoft Edge, you go to
- Step 1: Go to Settings
- Step 2: Then more > Settings
- Step 3: Select Languages from the Settings list
Soon, the Cosmopolitan Globalist is going to make this even simpler for you: We’re going to build this feature into the site so that you don’t have to change anything in your browser. But temporarily, to make this work, you need to adjust your browser settings. If you’re having trouble with this, drop us a note.
THE TRANSLATION SUPERHIGHWAY
We curate the most interesting foreign-language stories in the world. We use Google’s search tools to discover what’s relevant to speakers of other languages, then we use our good editorial judgment to pick the stories of most relevance and interest to our readers.
We let the world tell you about itself with no editorial intervention. We believe it speaks for itself. All we tell you is what know about the newspaper in question: Is it a regime mouthpiece, opposition, right-wing, left-wing, respectable, tabloid? What’s its circulation? We tell you, too, if there are restrictions on reporting in the country where it is published. That way, you can assess the likelihood that the report has been censored, officially or unofficially.
We don’t correct the text or editorialize. There are occasional mistakes in translation (fewer than you’d think), and sometimes the context is unclear. But intelligent readers are more than capable of making sense of these stories.