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Machine translations: Good enough for government work?

Even as consumer programs like Skype Translator are making it easier for people speaking different languages to communicate, governments are struggling to make information available to non-English speakers.

A presentation from the Department of Labor last year underscored that complying with anti-discrimination laws includes providing information in other languages to non-English speaking individuals in the community, including those speaking less-common languages. These translation requirements can include paper documents, webpages, online applications, texts, tweets and other social media.

“It is seldom, if ever, sufficient to use machine translation without having a human who is trained in translation available to review and correct the translation to ensure that it is conveying the intended message,” the presenters wrote.

But that’s not always possible for resource-strapped agencies.

An increasing number of government agencies, from federal to municipal, are relying on machine translation tools to help constituents and employees.

Both the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration and Virginia’sDepartment for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI) are using machine-translation technology and including links to Google Translate to help users navigate their websites. Both list disclaimers on their site and caution users that the translations are not official. In New Hampshire’s case, the site notes that “translation services are provided ‘as is,’” acknowledging that some pages may not be accurately translated due to the limitations of the software. DBVI goes a step further by stating that “only the English version will be relied on by the department in its decision making and in court.”

Fairfax County Public Schools uses Google Translate to provide its website information in 90 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. But it acknowledges that it cannot guarantee the accuracy of the converted text and that some files, like graphics with text and PDFs, cannot be translated.

In some cases, however, a machine translation might not be good enough. The Army is having some success with applying computer power to human translation for medical procedures.

When the military started training doctors in Afghanistan,  there were few medical manuals available in the local language, Dari, and few bilingual speakers of English and the Afghani language that knew medical terms, hindering proper medical care.

Using a combination of computer translation, computer scientists and Afghan doctors, the Army has been able to collect 6,000 medical phrases in Dari and compile these into medical reference manuals for Afghani medical teams. The books have been printed and distributed, and secondary products, including an Android “Army Phrase Book” app, have been developed to make broader use of the expertise captured in the translated phrases.

“Computers could never replace the human translator, but we look for ways to relieve some of the burden, especially in less-commonly used languages, like Dari, Pashto and Serbian,” said Melissa Holland, chief for U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s multilingual computing research program.

Flix Translations, translation agency, translation service, linguistic solutions.

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