Friday, October 22, 2021

Understanding Machine Translation Quality: A Review

This is a reprint of a post I wrote and already published here with some minor formatting changes made for emphasis. It is the first of a series of ongoing posts that will be published at that site and also shared here if it seems appropriate. 

For those who may seek or insist that I maintain a truly objective viewpoint, I should warn you that these posts will reflect my current understanding that ModernMT is truly a superior MT implementation for enterprise MT use. I will stress this often in future posts as I have not seen a better deployment of MT technology for professional business translation in the 15 years I have been involved with Enterprise MT.


Today we live in a world where machine translation (MT) is pervasive, and increasingly a necessary tool for any global enterprise that seeks to understand, communicate and share information with a global customer base.

It is estimated by experts that trillions of words are being translated daily with the aid of the many “free” generic public MT portals worldwide.

This is the first in a series of posts that will explore the issue of MT Quality in some depth, with several goals:

  • Explain why MT quality measurement is necessary,
  • Share best practices,
  • Expose common misconceptions,
  • Understand what matters for enterprise and professional use.

While much has been written on this subject already, it has not seemed to have reduced the amount of misunderstanding and confusion around this subject. Thus, there is value in continued elucidation to ensure that greater clarity and understanding are achieved.

So let’s begin.

MT Quality and Why Does It Matter?

Machine Translation (MT) or Automated Translation is a process when computer software “translates” text from one language to another without human involvement.

There are ten or more public MT portals available to do this in the modern era, and additionally, many private MT offerings are available to the modern enterprise to address their large-scale language translation needs. For this reason, the modern global enterprise needs an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the many offerings available in the marketplace.

Ideally, the “best” MT system would be identified by a team of competent translators who would run a diverse range of relevant content through the MT system after establishing a structured and repeatable evaluation process. 

This is slow, expensive, and difficult, even if only a small sample of 250 sentences is evaluated.

Thus, automated measurements that attempt to score translation adequacy, fluency, precision, and recall have to be used. They attempt to do what is best done by competent humans. This is done by comparing MT output to a human translation in what is called a Reference Test set. These reference sets cannot provide all the possible ways a source sentence could be correctly translated. Thus, these scoring methodologies are always an approximation of what a competent human assessment would determine, and can sometimes be wrong or misleading.

Thus, identifying the “best MT” solution is not easily done. Consider the cost of evaluating ten different systems on twenty different language combinations with a human team versus automated scores. Even though it is possible to rank MT systems based on scores like BLEU and hLepor, they do not represent production performance. The scores are a snapshot of an ever-changing scene. If you change the angle or the focus the results would change.

A score is not a stable and permanent rating for an MT system. There is no single, magic MT solution that does a perfect job on every document or piece of content or language combination. Thus, the selection of MT systems for production use based on these scores can often be sub-optimal or simply wrong.

Additionally, MT technology is not static: the models are constantly being improved and evolving, and what was true yesterday in quality comparisons may not be true tomorrow.

For these reasons, understanding how the data, algorithms, and human processes around the technology interact is usually more important than any comparison snapshot.  

In fact, building expertise and close collaboration with a few MT providers is likely to yield better ROI and business outcomes than jumping from system to system based on transient and outdated quality score-based comparisons.

Two primary groups have an ongoing and continuing interest in measuring MT quality. They are:

  1. MT developers
  2. Enterprise buyers and LSPs

They have very different needs and objectives and it is useful to understand why this is so.

Measurements that may make sense for developers can often be of little or no value to enterprise buyers and vice versa. 


MT Developers

MT developers typically work on one model at a time, e.g.: English-to-French. They will repeatedly add and remove data from a training set, then measure the impact to eventually determine the optimal data needed.

They may also modify parameters on the training algorithms used, or change algorithms altogether, and then experiment further to find the best data/algorithm combinations using instant scoring metrics like BLEU, TER, hLepor, ChrF, Edit Distance, and Comet.

While such metrics are useful to developers, they should not be used to cross-compare systems, and have to be used with great care.  The quality scores from several (data/algorithm) combinations are calculated by comparing MT output from each of these systems (models) to a Human Reference translation of the same evaluation test data. The highest scoring system is usually considered the best one.

In summary, MT developers use automatically calculated scores that attempt to mathematically summarize overall precision, recall, adequacy, and fluency characteristics of an MT system into a numeric score, This is done to identify the best English-to-French system, as stated in our example, that they can build with available data and computing resources.

However, a professional human assessment may often differ from what these scores say.

In recent years, Neural MT (NMT) models have exposed that using these automated scoring metrics in isolation can lead to sub-optimal choices. Increasingly, human evaluators are also engaged to ensure that there is a correlation between automatically calculated scores and human assessments.

This is because the scores are not always reliable, and human rankings can differ considerably from score-based rankings. Thus, the quality measurement process is expensive, slow, and prone to many procedural errors, and sometimes even deceptive tactics.

Some MT developers test on training data which can result in misleadingly high scores. (I know of a few who do this!) The optimization process described above is essentially how the large public MT portals develop their generic systems, where the primary focus is on acquiring the right data, using the best algorithms, and getting the highest (BLEU) or lowest (TER) scores.

Enterprise Buyers and LSPs

Enterprise Buyers and LSPs usually have different needs and objectives. They are more likely to be interested in understanding which English-to-French system is the “best” among five or more commercially available MT systems under consideration.

Using automated scores like BLEU, hLepor and TER do not make as much sense in this context. The typical enterprise/LSP is also additionally interested in understanding which system can be “best” modified to learn enterprise terminology and language style.

Optimization around enterprise content and subject domain matters much more, and a comparison of generic (stock) systems can often be useless in the considered professional use context.

Many forget that many business problems require a combination of both MT and human translation to achieve the required level of output quality. Thus, a tightly linked human-in-the-loop (HITL) process to drive MT performance improvements has increasingly become a key requirement for most enterprise MT use cases.

Third-party consultants have compared generic (stock or uncustomized) engines and ranked MT solutions using a variety of test sets that may or may not be relevant to a buyer. These rankings are then often being used to dynamically select different MT systems for different languages, but it is possible and even likely, that they are making sub-optimal choices.  

The ease, speed, and cost of tuning and adapting a generic (stock) MT system to enterprise content, terminology, and language style matter much more in this context, and comparisons should only be made after determining this aspect.

However, as generic system comparisons are much easier and less costly to do, TMS systems and middleware that allow MT system selection using these generic evaluation test data scores, often make choices based on irrelevant and outdated data and can thus be sub-optimal. This is a primary reason that so many LSP systems perform so poorly and why MT is so underutilized in this sector.

While NMT continues to gain momentum as the average water level keeps rising, there is still a great deal of naivete and ignorance in the professional translation community about MT quality assessment and MT best practices in general. The enterprise/LSP use of MT is much more demanding in terms of focused accuracy and sophistication in techniques, practices, and deployment variability, and few LSPs are capable or willing to make the investments needed to achieve ongoing competence as the state-of-the-art (SOTA) continues to evolve.

Dispelling MT Quality Misconceptions

1) Google has the “best” MT systems

This is one of the most widely held misconceptions. While Google does have excellent generic systems and broad language coverage, it is not accurate to say that they are always the best.

Google MT is complicated and expensive to customize for enterprise use cases, and there are significant data privacy and data control issues to be navigated.  Also, because Google has so much data underlying their MT systems, they are not easily customized by the relatively meager data volumes that most enterprises or LSPs have available. DeepL is often a favorite of translators, but also has limited customization and adaptation options.

ModernMT is a dynamically adaptive, and continuously learning breakthrough neural MT system. As it is possibly the only MT system that learns and improves with every instance of corrective feedback in real-time, a comparative snapshot based on a static system is even less useful.

A properly implemented ModernMT system will improve rapidly with corrective feedback, and easily outperform generic systems on the enterprise-specific content that matters most. Enterprise needs are more varied, and rapid adaptability, data security, and easy integration into enterprise IT infrastructure typically matter most.

2) MT Quality ratings are static & permanent

MT systems managed and maintained by experts are updated frequently and thus snapshot comparisons are only true for a single test set at a point in time. These scores are a very rough historical proxy for overall system quality and capability, and deeper engagement is needed to better understand system capabilities.

For example, to make proper assessments with ModernMT, it is necessary to actively provide corrective feedback to see the system improve exactly on the content that you are most actively translating now. If multiple editors concurrently provide feedback, ModernMT will improve even faster. These score-based rankings do not tell you how responsive and adaptive an MT system is to your unique data.

TMS systems that switch to different MT systems via API for each language are of dubious value since selections are often based on static and outdated scores. Best practices recommend that efforts to improve an MT systems adaptation to enterprise content, domain, and language style yield higher value than using MT system selection based on embedded scores built into TMS systems and middleware.

3) MT quality ratings for all use cases are the same.

The MT quality discussion needs to evolve beyond targeting linguistic perfection as the final goal, or comparison of BLEU, TER, or hLepor scores, and proximity to human translation.

It is more important to measure the business impact and make more customer-relevant content multilingual across global digital interactions at scale. While it is always good to get as close to human translation quality as possible, this is simply not possible with the huge volumes of content that are being translated today.

There is evidence now that shows that for many eCommerce use scenarios, even gist translations that contain egregious linguistic errors can produce a positive business impact. In information triage scenarios typical in eDiscovery (litigation, pharmacovigilance, national security surveillance) the translation needs to be accurate on key search parameters but not on all the text.  Translation of user-generated content (UGC) is invaluable to improving and understanding the customer experience and is also a primary influence on new purchase activity. None of these scenarios require perfect linguistic quality MT output, to have a positive business impact and drive successful customer engagement.

4) The linguistic quality of MT output is the only way to assess the “best” MT system.

The linguistic quality of MT output is only one of several critical criteria needed for robust evaluation for an enterprise/LSP buyer. Enterprise requirements like the ease and speed of customization to enterprise domain, data security and privacy, production MT system deployment options, integration into enterprise IT infrastructure,  overall MT system manageability, and control also need to be considered.

Given that MT is rapidly becoming an essential tool for a globally agile enterprise, we need new ways to measure the quality and value of MT in global CX scenarios. In the scenarios where MT enables better communication, information sharing, and understanding of customer concerns on a global scale, we need new ways to measure success.  A closer examination of business impact reveals that the metrics that matter the most would be:

  • Increased global digital presence and footprint
  • Enhanced global communication and collaboration
  • Rapid response in all global customer service/support scenarios
  • Productivity improvement in localization use cases to enable more content to be delivered at higher quality
  • Improved conversion rates in eCommerce

And ultimately the measure that matters at the executive level is the measurably improved customer experience of every customer in the world. 

This is often more a result of process and deployment excellence than the reported semantic similarity scores of any individual MT system.

The reality today is that increasingly larger volumes of content are being translated and used with minimal or no post-editing.  The highest impact MT use cases may only post-edit a tiny fraction of the content they translate and distribute.

However, much of the discussion in the industry today still focuses on post-editing efficiency and quality estimation processes that assume all the content will be post-edited.

It is time for a new approach that easily enables tens of millions of words to be translated daily, in continuously learning MT systems that improve by the day and enable new communication, understanding, and collaboration with globally distributed stakeholders.

In the second post in this series, we will dig deeper into BLEU and other automated scoring methodologies and show why competent human assessments are still the most valuable feedback that can be provided to drive ongoing and continuous improvements in MT output quality.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Close Call - Observations on Productivity, Talent Shortages, & Human Parity MT

This is a guest post by Luigi Muzii, a frequent contributor to this blog. I wanted to make sure I had a chance to re-publish his thoughts on the MT human parity issue before he withdraws from blogging, and hopefully, this is not his last contribution. He has been a steady and unrelenting critic of many translation industry practices, mostly, I think with the sincere hope of driving evolution and improvement in business practices. To my mind, his criticism always had the underlying hope that business processes and strategies in the translation industry would evolve to look more like other industries where service work is more respected and acknowledged or more closely align to the business mission needs of clients. His acerbic tone and dense writing style have been criticized, but I have always appreciated his keen observation and unabashed willingness to expose bullshit, overused cliches, and platitudes in the industry. There is just too much Barney-love in the translation industry. Even though I don't always agree with him, it is refreshing to hear a counter opinion that challenges the frequent self-congratulation that we also see in this industry.  

When I first came to the translation industry from the mainstream IT industry I noticed that people in the industry were more world-wise, cultured, and even gentler than most I had encountered in the IT industry. However, the feel-good vibe engendered by the multicultural sensitivity also sustains a cottage industry characteristic to processes, technology, and communication style in this industry. People are much more tolerant of inefficiency and sub-optimal technology use. I noticed this especially from the technology viewpoint as I entered the industry as a spokesperson for Language Weaver who was an MT pioneer with data-driven MT technology, the first wave of "machine learning". I was amazed by the proliferation of shoddy in-house TMS systems and the insistence to keep these mostly second-rate systems running. When a group of more professionally developed TMS systems emerged, these TMS vendors struggled to convince key players to adopt the improved technology. It is amazing that even companies that reach hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue still have processes and technology use profiles of late-stage cottage industry players. Even Jochen Hummel the inventor of Trados (TM) has expressed surprise that a technology he developed in the 1980s is still around, and has stated openly that it should properly be replaced by some form of NMT! 

The resistance to MT is a perfect example of a missed opportunity. Instead of learning to use it better, in a more integrated, knowledgeable, and value-adding way for clients, it has become another badly used tool whose adoption struggles along, and MT use is most frequently associated with inflicting pain and low compensation on the translators forced to work with these sub-optimal systems.

In an era where trillions of words are being translated by MT daily in public MT portals, the chart above should properly be titled  "Clueless with MT". I would also change it to N=170 LSPs that don't know how to use MT. Most LSPs who claim to "do MT", even the really large ones, in fact, do it really badly. The Translated - ModernMT deployment in my opinion is one of the very few exceptions of how to do MT right for the challenging localization use case. It is also the ONLY LSP user scenario I know where MT is used in 90% or more of all translations work done by the LSP. Why? Because it CONSISTENTLY makes work easier, more efficient, and most importantly translators consistently ask for access to the rapidly learning ModernMT systems. Rather than BLEU scores, a production scenario where translators regularly and fervently ask for MT access is the measure of success. It can only happen with superior engineering that understands and enhances the process. It also means that this LSP can process thousand words projects with the same ease as they can process billions of words a month and scale easily to trillions of words if needed. In my view, this is a big deal and that is what happens when you use technology properly. It is no surprise that most of the largest MT deployments in the world outside of the major Public MT Portals (eCommerce, OSI, eDiscovery) have little to no LSP involvement. Why would any sophisticated global enterprise be motivated to bring in an LSP that offers nothing but undifferentiated project management, dead-end discussions on quality measurement, and a decade-long track record of incompetent technology use?  

Expert MT use is a result of the right data, the right process, and ML algorithms which are now commoditized. In the localization space, the "right" process is particularly important.  Like much of machine intelligence, the real genius [of deep learning] comes from how the system is designed, not from any autonomous intelligence of its own. Clever representations, including clever architecture, make clever machine intelligence,” Roitblat writes. I think it is fair to say that most MT use in the translation industry does not reach the level of "clever machine intelligence". It follows that most translation industry MT use projects would qualify as sub-optimal machine intelligence.

This, I felt was a fitting introduction to Luigi's post. I hope he shows up once in a while in the coming future, as I don't know many others who are as willing to point out "areas of improvement" for the community as willingly as he does.



The Productivity Paradox

Economists have argued for decades that massively investing in office technologies would enormously boost up productivity. However, already in 1994 authoritative studies had cast doubts on the reliability of certain projections. Recent studies reported that a 12 percent annual increase in the data processing budgets for U.S. corporations have yielded annual productivity gains of less than 2 percent.

The reasons for those gains to be much less than expected might be in long-established business practices that have possibly been holding them back by restraining knowledge workers from taking full advantage of better and better tools, thus boosting productivity, proving the significance of the law of the instrument.

Therefore, to achieve the expected increases in productivity most business practices should change.

Word Rates v. Hour Rates

Translation pays have been based on per-word rates for over thirty years. The reasons are basically twofold. On one hand, computer-aided translation tools have finally enabled buyers to understand (more or less) precisely what they have been paying for. On the other hand, computer-aided translation tools have been allowing to measure throughput (almost) objectively and productivity, thus helping statistics and projections.

Add to that the ability for buyers to request discounts based on the percentage of matches between a text and a translation memory and it instantly becomes obvious that it is not the translator’s time, expertise, or skills that they are buying and paying for.

Nevertheless, a translation assignment/project inevitably ends up involving a series of collateral tasks whose fee cannot be computed on a per-word basis.

The price LSPs charge buyers, then, includes the price for services for which they then pay vendors on a different basis. Similarly, in setting their own fees, these vendors include the compensation for non-productive or non-remunerative tasks. The word-rate fee, then, is also based on the time required to complete a certain task. In short, this means that even the conundrum of measured fees (word rate and hourly rate) v. fixed fees is pointless. The moment the parties agree on how to compute the fee, only measuring is left open. And when it comes to statistics and projections, this is of more interest to the supplier—specifically the middleman—than the buyer.

Not only would reducing non-productive tasks allow for regaining margins and cutting the selling price, but also for regaining productivity and resources to allocate for increasing efficiency through automation, thus ultimately productivity itself.

If anything, now more than ever, it is necessary to foster standardization and reach an agreement on reference models, metrics, and methods of measurement. The resulting standardization of exchange formats, data models, and metrics would help productivity and interoperability.

In fact, some tasks, like file preparation or, more precisely, the assembly of localization packages and kits, cannot be fully automated or outstripped from the translation/localization workflow, although they are indeed separate jobs. In this respect, standardization might also help automate such tasks. Nevertheless, when extensive and time-tolling, these tasks should be the buyer’s responsibility. Incidentally, given the traditionally poor consideration of buyers for the translation industry and their insufficient understanding of translation and localization and the related workflow, most of the problems associated with project setup and file-preparation is attributable to sloppiness and immaturity. This includes job instructions requiring project teams to spend time reading through them.

On the other hand, some of these tasks, like quotation, are commonly part of project tasks while they should not. So, for example, when formulating quotations at selling, any subsequent task relating to it can be (at least partially) automated. The same goes for instructions that might become mandatory workflow steps (when platforms allow for custom workflows) and checklists to run.

Skill, Labor Shortages, and Education

Here are a few questions for those who have designed or design, have held, or hold translation and localization courses: 

  • Have your lectures ever dealt with style guides and job instructions for students to learn how to follow them? 
  • Have you ever included in your assessments the degree of compliance with style guides and instructions during exams?

Customers and LSPs, to the same extent, have always been complaining about the lack of qualified language professionals.

At the TAUS Industry Summit 2017, Bodo Vahldieck, Sr. Localization Manager at VMware, expressed his frustration at not being able to find young talent willing and able to go and work with the “fantastic localization technology suites” at his company.

Sometime earlier, CommonSense Advisory had also launched the alarm on the talent shortage in the language service industry.

Even earlier, Inger Larsen, Founder & MD at Larsen Globalization Recruitment, a recruitment company for the translation industry wrote an article titled Why we still need more good translators reporting about the outcome of a little informal poll showing a failure rate for translators passing professional test translations was about 70 percent, although they all were qualified translators, many of them with quite a lot of experience.

The talent shortage is no news, then, and lately many companies in other industries have been reporting hiring troubles. Apparently, Gresham’s Law  [an economic principle commonly stated as Bad money drives out good] is ruling everywhere, not just in the translation space.

Actually, the labor shortage is a myth. The complaints of Domino’s Pizza CEO, Uber, and other companies are insubstantial because the simplest way to find enough labor is by offering higher wages. In doing so, new workers will enter the market and any labor shortages will quickly end. A rare case for true labor shortage in a free economy is when wages are so high that businesses cannot afford to pay them without going broke. But this would be like the dot-com bubble that led an entire economy to collapse.

Therefore, such complaints are most possibly the sign that corporate executives have grown so accustomed to a low-wage economy to believe anything else is abnormal.

But when bad resources have driven out good ones altogether, offering higher wages might not be enough and presents the risk of overpaying; even more so if the jobs available are very low-profile and can hardly be automated.

Interestingly, as part of a more comprehensive study, Citrix recently conducted a survey from which three key priorities emerged for knowledge workers:

  1. Complete flexibility in hours and location
    This means that, in response to skill shortages and to position themselves to win in the future, companies will have to leverage flexible work models and meet employees where they are. And yet, many still seem to be on a different path.
  2. Different productivity metrics
    Traditional productivity metrics will have to address the value delivered, not the volume i.e., companies will have to prioritize outcomes over output. Surprisingly, many companies claim this is already how they operate.
  3. Diversity
    A diverse workforce will become even more important as roles, skills, and company requirements change over time, although this will challenge current productivity metrics even further.

Machines Do Not Raise Wage Issues

If the linear decrease of pay in the face of the exponential growth of translation demand is puzzling, it is because we are accustomed to the fundamental market law: When demand increases, prices rise. But the technology lag that educational institutions and industry players generally, show compared with other industries and, most importantly, clients which mean that even the best resources do not keep up with productivity expectations, regardless of whether these are more or less reasonable. Also, the common failure of LSPs to differentiate, maximize efficiency and reduce costs leads them to compete on price alone, which only exacerbates the situation, making translation and localization a commodity. Finally, the all too often unreasonable demands of LSPs, even more, unreasonable than those of their customers, have been driving the best resources off the industry. It is a vicious circle that makes productivity a myth and an illusion.

Productivity is a widely discussed subject that has got even more attention during the pandemic. As David J. Lynch recently put it in The Washington Post, “Greater productivity is the rare silver lining to emerge from the crucible of covid-19”. This eventually has kick-started a turn to automation, which is gradually spreading through structural shifts that will further spur it.

Lynch also pointed out that, assuming and not conceding that labor shortages actually exist and are a problem, after helping businesses survive, automation will help them attract labor to meet surging demand.

There is a general understanding that, during the pandemic, firms became more productive and learned to do more with less, even though, in this respect, the effect of technology has been fairly marginal, and less than that from purely organizational measures.

Anyway, according to a McKinsey study, investments in new technologies are going to accelerate through 2024 with an expectation of significant productivity growth. That is because automation is generally understood as different from office technologies or, more likely, because the organizational measures above are more challenging, cost more and are less tax-efficient. Or maybe because more and more businesses complaining of labor shortages are convinced that automation will allow them to fill orders they otherwise would have to turn down.

After all, this is exactly the approach of LSPs towards machine translation and even more so post-editing. But automation as understood is limited and distorted and leads to an exacerbation of the effects of the Gresham’s Law. On the other hand, many translators are still quite unconvinced of machine translation and see it as slightly useful. This is due mostly to the negative policies of most LSPs and their widespread attitude towards automation, machine translation and technology at large that have repeatedly exposed LSPs and their vendors to the deadly effects of incompetently implemented and deployed machine translation systems, whose only objective is to try and reduce translator compensation and safeguard margins.

Playing with Grown-ups

Experienced customers know that machine translation is no panacea [for translation challenges] and does not come cheap. True, online machine translation engines are free, but they are not suitable for business or professional use, requiring experienced linguists to exploit them for professional use. A corporate machine translation platform requires a substantial initial investment, plus specific know-how and resources, including a proper (substantial) amount of quality data to train models. Most importantly, it requires time and patience, which are traditionally a rare commodity in today’s business world.

The most coveted achievement of any LSP is to play in the same league as grown-ups, but grown-ups do not want to play with LSPs when they get to know them, and learn LSPs cannot help them find the best suited machine translation system, implement, train, and tune it because they do not have the necessary know-how, ability, and resources. For the same reasons, they know they cannot outsource their machine translation projects to the LSPs themselves, no matter how hard these offer their services in this field too.

Disenchantment when not skepticism or outright distrust is the consequence of LSPs not being attuned to the needs of clients, especially the bigwigs (the grown-ups), and the resulting lack of integration with their processes. Then again, clients have always been asking for understanding and integration and what have they got in response? A pointless post-editing standard.

LSPs are losing the continuous localization battle too. Rather than adjusting processes to the customer’s modus operandi, LSPs—and their reference consultants—blame customers for demanding localization teams to keep up with code and content as these are developed, before deployment. On the other hand, rather than streamlining their processes, LSPs try and stick hopelessly to the traditional clumsy ones. No wonder customers have issues in trusting LSPs.

Apparently, in fact, many LSPs are concerned about the effects of continuous localization on linguistic quality, when the kind of quality LSPs are accustomed to is exactly what they should forget. Not for nothing, a basic rule in the Agile model, consists of using every new iteration to correct the errors made in the previous one.

If anything, it is odd that machine translation has not become predominant already and that clients and, more importantly, LSPs insist on maintaining working and payment models that are, to say the least, obsolete.

What if, for example, the idea around quality rapidly changes, and customer experience becomes the new paradigm?

This would reinforce the base for wide-ranging service level agreements to cover a stable buyer-vendor relationship first on the client-LSP side and then on the LSP-vendor side, with international payments going through a platform enabling the buyer to pay vendors in their local preferred currency. A clause in the agreement may require the payees sign up with the platform and input their banking details and preferred currency.

Payment platforms already exist that allow clients to qualify for custom (flat) rates by submitting a pricing assessment form, and that connect with other systems through a web API translator via no-code applets based on an IFTTT (If This Then That) mechanism.

Payments are not easy, but it is worth getting right because it is the sore point paving the road for Gresham’s Law.

Perverted Debates

If the debate around rates and payments has never gone past the stage of rants and complaints, the one around quality has been intoxicating the translation space for years without leading to any significant outcome.  Yet they still produce tons of academic publications around the same insubstantial fluff and generate thousands of lines of code just to keep repeating the same mistakes.

As long as machine translation was a subject confined to specialists, relatively objective metrics and models ruled the quality assessment process with the goal of improving the technology and the assessment metrics and models themselves.

After entering the mainstream, a few years ago, machine translation became marketing prey. Marketing people at machine translation companies started targeting translation industry players with improvements in automated evaluation metrics, typically BLEU, and the public with claims of "human parity". [And also the increasing use of bogus MT quality rankings done by third parties.]

Both are smoke and mirrors, though. On one side, automated metrics are no more than just the scores they deliver, and their implications are hard to grasp; also, they have been showing all their limitations with Neural MT models. On the other hand, no one has bothered to offer a consistent, unambiguous, and undisputable definition of ‘human parity’ other than the ones from the companies bragging they have achieved it.

Saying that machine translation output is “nearly indistinguishable from” or “equivalent to” a human translation is misleading and means almost nothing. Saying that a machine has achieved human parity if “There is no statistically significant difference between human quality scores for a test set of candidate translations from a machine translation system and the scores for the corresponding human translations” may sound more exhaustive and accurate, but comparisons depend anyway on the characteristics of input and output and on the conditions for comparison and evaluation.

In other words, the questions to answer are, “Is every human capable of translating in any language pair? Can any human produce a translation of equivalent quality in any language pair? Can any human translate better than machines in any language pair?” And vice versa.

All too often, people, even in the professional translation space, tend to forget that machine translation is a narrow-AI application i.e., it focuses on one narrow task, with each language pair being a separate task. In other words, the singularity that would justify making the claim of  "human parity" is still afar, and not just in time, so much for Ray Kurzweil’s predictions or Elon Musk’s confidence in Neuralink’s development of a universal language and brain chip.

Using automatic MT quality scores as a marketing lever is therefore misleading because there are too many variables at play. Talking about "human parity" is misleading too because one should consider the conditions under which the assessment leading to certain statements has been conducted.

Now, it is quite reasonable for a client to ask a partner (as LSPs like to think of themselves) to help them correctly and fully interpret machine translation scores and certain catchphrases that may sound puzzling for vagueness or ambiguity.

Most clients—the largest ones anyway—are in a different league in terms of organizational maturity than their language service providers, and cannot understand the reason for the sloppiness and inefficiency they see in these would-be partners. And yet it is quite simple: The traditional, still common translation process model they follow are not sustainable even for mission-critical content. Incidentally, this brings us back to productivity, payments, Gresham’s law, and skill and labor shortages, all interrelated.

Not only are leaner, faster, and more efficient processes necessary more than ever, a mutual understanding is crucial. To help customers understand translation products and services, and value them accordingly, the people in this industry should waive the often obfuscating jargon that no client is interested in and is willing to learn and decipher. Is this jargon part of the notorious information asymmetry?

A greater and more honest self-assessment is necessary, which the industry is, instead, dramatically lacking at all levels. And this possibly explains the greater interest in the machine translation market and industry rather than in the translation industry.


Luigi Muzii's profile photo

Luigi Muzii has been in the "translation business" since 1982 and has been a business consultant since 2002, in the translation and localization industry through his firm. He focuses on helping customers choose and implement best-suited technologies and redesign their business processes for the greatest effectiveness of translation and localization-related work.

This link provides access to his other blog posts.

Monday, May 24, 2021

ModernMT: A Closer Look At An Emerging Enterprise MT Powerhouse

 As one observes the continuing evolution of MT use in the professional translation industry, we see that we have reached a point where we have some useful insights about producing successful outcomes in our use of MT. From my perspective as a long-term observer and expert analyst of enterprise MT use, some of these include:

  • Adaptation and customization of a generic MT engine done with expertise generally produces a better outcome than simply using a generic public MT system. 
  • Working with enhanced baseline engines built by experts is likely to produce better outcomes than dabbling with Open Source options with limited expertise. While it has gotten easier to produce MT systems with open-source platforms, real expertise requires long-term exposure and repeated experimentation. 
  • The algorithms underlying Neural MT have become largely commoditized and there is little advantage gained by jumping from one NMT platform to another.
  • More data is ONLY better if it is clean, relevant, and applicable to the enterprise use case in focus. It can be said today that (training) data often matters more than the algorithms used, but data quality and organization is a critical factor for creating successful outcomes.
  • A large majority of translators still view MT with great skepticism and see it as marginally useful, mostly because of repeated exposure to incompetently deployed MT systems that are used to reduce translator compensation. Getting active and enthusiastic translator buy-in continues to be a challenge for most MT developers and getting this approval is a clear indicator of superior expertise.
  • Attempts to compare different MT systems are largely unsuccessful or misleading, as they are typically based on irrelevant test data or draw conclusions based on very small samples.
  • A large number of enterprise use cases are limited by scarce training data resources and thus adaptation and customization attempts have limited success.
I have been skeptical of the validity of many of the comparisons we see of MT systems produced by LSPs and "independent" evaluators nowadays, because of the questionable evaluation methodologies used. The evaluators often produce nice graphics but just as often produce misleading results that need further investigation. However, these comparative evaluations of different MT systems can still be useful to get a rough idea of the performance of generic systems of these MT vendors. Over the last few years ModernMT has been consistently showing up amongst the top-performing MT systems in many different evaluations, and thus I decided to sit down with the ModernMT team to better understand their technology and product philosophy and understand what might be driving this consistent performance advantage. The level of transparency and forthcoming nature of the responses from the ModernMT team was refreshing in contrast to other conversations I have had with other MT developers.

The MT journey here began over 10 years ago with Moses and Statistical MT, but unlike most other long-term MT initiatives I know of, this effort was very translator-centric right from its inception. The system was used heavily by translators who worked for Translated and the MT systems were continually adapted and modified to meet the needs of production translators. This is a central design intention and it is important to not gloss over this, as this is the ONLY MT initiative I know of where Translator Acceptance is used as the primary criterion on an ongoing basis, in determining whether MT should be used for production work or not. The operations managers will simply not use MT if it does not add value to the production process and causes translator discontent.  Over many years the ongoing collaboration with translators at ModernMT has triggered MT system and process development changes to reach the current status quo, where the MT value-add and efficiency is clear to all the stakeholders. The long-term collaboration between translators and MT developers, and resulting system and process modifications are a key reason why ModernMT does so well in both generic MT system comparisons, and especially in adapted/customized MT comparisons.
Thus, translators who actively use the ModernMT platform do so most often through MateCat, an open-source CAT tool that ties together MyMemor(a large free-access shared TM repository with around 50 billion words in it) together with ModernMT or other MT platforms. MT is presented to translators as an alternative to TM on a routine basis, and corrections are dynamically and systematically used to drive continuous improvements in the ModernMT engines. Trados and other CAT tools are also able to seamlessly connect to the ModernMT back-end but these systems may see less immediate improvements in the MT output quality. However, this has not stopped ~25,000 downloads of the ModernMT plugin for Trados on the SDL Appstore. Translators who do production work for Translated are often given a choice of using Google instead of ModernMT but most have learned that ModernMT output improves rapidly from corrective feedback and that collaborative input is also easier, and thus tend to prefer it as shown in the surveys below. Over the years the ModernMT product evolution has been driven by changes to identify and reduce post-editing effort rather than optimizing BLEU scores as most others have done. 

In contrast to most MTPE experiences, the individual translator experience here is characterized by the following:
  • A close and symbiotic relationship between a relevant translation memory and MT, even at the translator UX level
  • An MT system that is constantly updated and can potentially improve with every single interaction and unit of corrective feedback
  • Immediate project startup possibilities as no batch MT training process is necessary
  • Translator control over all steering data used in a project means very straightforward control over terminology and term consistency, mirroring the latest TMs and linguistic preferences
  • Corrective feedback given to the MT system is dynamic and continuous and can have an immediate impact on the next sentence produced by the MT system
  • One of very few MT systems available today that can provide a context-sensitive translation 
  • Measurable and palpable reduction in post-editing effort and translator UX compared to other MT platforms
  • Continuing free access to the CAT tool needed to integrate MT with TM, and interact proactively with MT with the option to use other highly regarded CAT tools if needed. 

Memory here refers to user input data TM and glossaries to tune the generic system to the needs of the current translation task

Instance-Based Adaptation

ModernMT describes itself as an "Instance-Based Adaptive MT" platform. This means that it can start adapting and tuning the MT output to the customer subject domain immediately, without a batch customization phase. There is no long-running (hours/days/weeks) data preparation and pre-training process needed upfront. There is also no need to wait and gather a sufficient volume of corrective feedback to update and improve the MT engine on an ongoing basis. It is learning all the time. 

Rapid adaptation to customer-unique language and terminology is perhaps the single most critical requirement for a global enterprise, and thus this is an optimal design for enterprises that works optimally with their specialized and unique content. This is also true for LSPs too, for that matter. ModernMT can adapt the MT system with as little as a single sentence, though the results are better if more data is provided. The team told me that 100K words (10-12,000 sentences)  would generally produce consistently good results that are superior to any generic engine. The long-term impact of this close collaboration with translators who provide ongoing corrections, feedback on critical requirements to improve efficiency and process workflow, and careful acquisition of the right kind of data, results in the kind of relative performance rankings that ModernMT now regularly sees as a matter of course. One might even go so far as to say that they have built a sustainable competitive advantage. 

I have always felt that a properly designed Man-Machine collaboration would very likely outperform an MT design approach that relies entirely on algorithms and/or data alone. We can see this is true from the comparative results of the large public MT portals who probably have 100X or more of the resources and budget that ModernMT does. The understanding of the translation task and resulting directives that ongoing translator feedback brings to the table is an ingredient that most current MT systems lack. Gary Marcus and other AI experts have been vocal in pointing out that machine learning and data alone is not the best way forward and more human steering and symbolic knowledge is needed for better outcomes.  

Special Features

ModernMT is a context-aware machine translation product that learns from user corrections. There has recently been growing interest in the MT research community to bring a greater degree of contextual awareness to MT systems and ModernMT has also been investigating implementing capabilities around doing this. The current production version has an implementation of this already, and this feature continues to evolve in speed, efficiency, and capability.

The ModernMT Context Analyzer analyzes an entire document text to be translated in milliseconds before producing a translation. This analysis seeks out and identifies the distinctive terminology and intrinsic style of the document. This information is then used to automatically select the most suitable private translation memories loaded by the user for that particular document. This results in the engine selecting the translation memory inventory that best reflects the right terminology and writing style. It is precisely this inventory that the MT engine leverages to customize the output in real-time, for each and every sentence of the document.

As translators at Translated working with ModernMT regularly have the ability to compare the MT output with that of Google Translate, the developers monitor translator preferences on an ongoing basis. This ensures that translators are always working with the MT output that they find most useful and that developers understand when their own engines need to be improved or enhanced. The following charts are based on feedback from translators during production work and show a very definite preference for the rapidly improving ModernMT engine output. This preference is seen in internal translator assessments working in production mode rather than just a selective test set, and this has also been confirmed by independent third-party assessments with both automated scores and human evaluations. They all consistently show that ModernMT customizations regularly outperform most others in independent comparative evaluations. The forces driving this superior performance are the result of design philosophy and long-term man-machine collaboration that cannot be easily replicated by others.

Recent comparative assessments done by independent third parties also confirm this preference using different evaluation methods that include both human and automated metrics as shown below. It is not unreasonable to presume that this performance advantage will remain intact for at least the short term.

Data Privacy

In response to a question on data privacy, Davide Caroselli, VP of Product, ModernMT responded: "Any content sent to ModernMT, whether a “TMX” memory or an MTPE correction from a professional translator, is saved in the user’s private data area. In fact, only you will be able to access your resources and make ModernMT adjust to them; in no way will another user be able to utilize that same inventory for his/her system, nor will ModernMT itself be able to use those contents, other than to exclusively offer your personalized translation service.

In addition, ModernMT uses state-of-the-art encryption technologies to provide its cloud services. Our data centers, employee processes and office operations are ISO 27001:2013 certified." 

On-Premise Capabilities

While the bulk of the current ModernMT customer base works with the secure cloud deployment, the team at ModernMT has also defined a range of on-premise deployment capabilities for those enterprises that need the security, control, and assured data privacy needs that characterizes some National Security, Financial, Legal, and Healthcare/Pharma industry requirements. The open-source foundations of much of the ModernMT infrastructure should make it particularly interesting to US Government Intelligence and Law-Enforcement agencies seeking large-scale multilingual data processing capabilities for eDiscovery and Social Media Surveillance applications.  

Given that ModernMT is a continuous learning MT platform that learns with each correction, dynamically, there is a requirement for more GPU infrastructure than some other on-premise solutions in the market. However, there is a strong focus on computational efficiency to minimize the IT footprint needed to deploy it on-premise, and based on information provided to me, their capabilities are quite similar to competitive alternatives both in terms of hardware requirements and software pricing. Hardware costs are linked to throughput expectations with more hardware required for high throughput requirements. As with most machine learning-intensive capabilities, only enterprises with competent IT teams could undertake this as an internal deployment, and most LSPs and localization departments will see a lower total cost of ownership with the cloud deployment. 

Enterprise Readiness  

As ModernMT has evolved from the localization world it is already optimized for MT use cases where there is a significant need for a machine-first human optimized approach. More and more we see this model as being a preferred approach for the exploding volumes of localization content.  The Localization Use Case is possibly the most challenging MT use case out there, as it requires very high-quality initial output that translators are willing to work with where it can be proven that the MT enhances productivity and efficiency. Localization use cases demand the highest quality MT output from the outset compared to eDiscovery,  social media surveillance, eCommerce,  customer service & support use cases which are all more tolerant of lower MT output quality on much larger volumes of data. Very few MT developers have had success with the high-quality and rapid responsiveness needs of the localization use case and many have tried and failed. This is why LSP adoption of MT is so low. ModernMT's success with the challenging localization use case, however, positions them very well for other MT use cases as their growing success with these other use cases proves.

The ASTW case study illustrates the success of ModernMT in Intellectual Property (Patents) and Life Science focused translations, where the ease of customization for complex terminology and morphology, the ability to learn continuously and quickly from corrective feedback, and superior MTPE experience compared to other MT solutions has quickly made it a preferred solution. 
"ModernMT is currently our favorite MT engine, especially in patent translations and in the Life Science sector, because it proves reliable, efficient, qualitatively better than its competitors, easily customizable and advantageous in terms of cost."

Domenico Lombardini, CEO ASTW

We see that eCommerce giants understand the positive impact of translating huge volumes of catalog and user-generated CX content has on driving international revenue growth with the examples of eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba. ModernMT is now the MT engine driving the multilingual expansion of Airbnb web content and is translating many billions of words a month for them. User-generated content influences future customers, and there is great value in translating this content to drive and grow international business. Interestingly ModernMT began this initiative with almost no translation memory and had to perform specialized heuristic analysis on Airbnb content to build the training material.    

ModernMT has reached this point with very little investment in sales and marketing infrastructure. As this builds out and expands I will be surprised if ModernMT does not continue to expand and grow its enterprise presence, as enterprise buyers begin to understand that a tightly integrated man-machine collaborative platform that is continuously learning, is key to creating successful MT outcomes. I am aware that many other high-profile enterprise conversations are underway, and I expect that most enterprise buyers who evaluate the ModernMT platform will very likely find it is a preferred, cost-efficient way to implement large-scale MT solutions in a way that dramatically raises the likelihood of success. 

Future Directions

Davide also mentioned to me that his team is very connected to the AI community in Italy, and have been experimenting with GPT-3 and BERT, and will continue to do so until clear value-added applications that support and enhance their MT product emerge. ModernMT has a close relationship with Pi Campus and thus has regular interaction with luminaries in the AI community e.g.  Lukasz Kaiser who will be speaking about improvements in the Transformer architecture later this month.

The team also showed me demos of complex video content that had ModernMT-based automated dubbing from English to Italian injected into it. Apparently, Italy is one of the largest dubbing markets in the world. Who knew? Since my wife speaks Italian, I showed her some National Geographic content on geology, filled with complex terminology and scientific subject matter that she was shocked to find out had been done completely without human modification. The Translated team is exploring Speech Translation and I expect that they will be quality leaders here too.

ModernMT will continue to expand its connectivity to other translation and content management infrastructure to make it easier to get translation-worthy data in and out of their environment. They also continue to explore ways to make the ModernMT continuous training infrastructure more computationally efficient so that it can be more easily deployed on smaller footprint hardware. 

I expect we will see more and more of ModernMT on the enterprise MT stage from now on, as buyers realize that this is a significantly improved next-generation MT solution that is more likely to produce successful outcomes in digital transformation-related enterprise use scenarios. The ModernMT approach reduces the uncertainty that is so common with most MT-related initiatives and does it so seamlessly that most would not realize how sophisticated the underlying technology is until they attempt to replicate the functionality.

On a completely different note, I participated some months ago in responding to a question posed by  Luca Di Biase, the Imminent Research Director. He posed this same question to many luminaries in the translation industry, and also to me. The question has already triggered several discussions on Twitter.

“Is language a technology or a culture?”  

My response was as follows, but I think you may find the many other responses more interesting and complete if you go to this link or look at some of the other Twitter comments.
It is neither. Language is a means of communication and an information-sharing protocol that employs sounds, symbols, and gestures. Language can sometimes use technology to enable amplification, extend the reach of messages, and accelerate information and knowledge sharing. Language can create a culture when shared with(in) a group and used with well-understood protocols and norms. Intercultural communication can also mean cross species, e.g., when communicating with dogs and horses.

Translated's Research Center has just released the Imminent publication which has a distinctive style coupled with interesting content, that I think most in the language industry would find compelling and worth a close look.