Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2018: Machine Translation for Humans - Neural MT

This is a guest post by Laura Casanellas @LauraCasanellas  describing her journey with language technology. She raises some good questions for all of us to ponder over the coming year.

 Neural MT is all the rage now and it now appears in almost every translation industry discussion we see today. Sometimes depicted as a terrible job-killing force and sometimes as a savior, though I would bet that it is neither. Hopefully, the hype subsides and we start focusing on solving issues that enable high-value deployments. I have been interviewed by a few people about NMT technology in the last month, so expect to see even more on NMT, and we continue to see that GAFA and the Chinese/Korean giants (Baidu, Alibaba, Naver) also introduce NMT offerings. 

Open source toolkits for NMT proliferate, training data is easier to acquire, and hardware options for neural net and deep learning experimentation continue to expand.  It is very likely that we will see even more generic NMT solutions appear in the coming year, but generic NMT solutions are often not suitable for professional translation use.  For many reasons, but especially because of the inability to properly secure data privacy, properly integrate the technology into carefully built existing production workflows, customize NMT engines for very specific subject domains, and implement controls, and feedback cycles that are critical to ongoing NMT use in professional translation scenarios. It is quite likely that many LSPs will waste time and resources with multiple NMT toolkits, only to find out that NMT is far from being a Plug'nPlay technology, and real competence is not easily acquired without significant long-term knowledge building investments. We are perhaps reaching a threshold year for the translation industry where skillful use of MT and other kinds of effective automation are a requirement, both for business survival and for developing a sustainable competitive advantage.

The latest Multilingual magazine (January 2018) contains several articles on NMT technology but unfortunately does not have any contributions from SDL and Systran, who I think are the companies that are probably the most experienced with NMT technology use in the professional translation arena.  I have pointed out many of the challenges that still exist with NMT in previous posts in this blog, but I noted better definition of interesting challenges and some new highlights (for me) listed in the articles in Multilingual, for example:

  • DFKI documented very specifically that even though NMT systems have lower BLEU scores they exhibit fewer errors in most linguistic categories and are thus preferred by humans
  • DFKI also stated that terminology and tag management are major issues for NMT, and need to be resolved somehow to enable more professional deployments
  • Several people reported that using BLEU to compare NMT vs. SMT is unlikely to give meaningful results, but this is still often the means of comparison used in many cases
  • Capita TI reported that the cost of building an NMT engine is 50X that of an SMT engine, and the cost of running it is 70X the cost of an SMT engine
  • Experiments run at this stage of technology exploration by most in the professional translation world, should not be seen as conclusive and final. Their results will often be a reflection of their lack of expertise than of teh actual technology. As NMT expertise deepens and as the obvious challenges are worked out, we should expect that NMT  will become the preferred model even for Adaptive MT implementations.
  •  SMT took several years to mature and develop the ancillary infrastructure needed to enable MT deployments at scale. NMT will do this faster but it still does need some time for support infrastructure and key tools to be put in place. 
  • MT is a strategic technology that can provide long-term leverage but is most often unlikely to promise ROI on a single project, and this, plus the unwillingness to acknowledge the complexity of do-it-yourself options are key reasons that I think many LSPs will be left behind. 

Anyway, these are exciting times and look like things are about to get more exciting.

I am responsible for all text that is in bold in this post.


2017 has been a year of reinvention. We thought we had it good and then, Neural MT came along.

Riding The Wave

I started in localization twenty years ago and I still feel like an outsider; I don’t have a translation degree, neither do I have a technical background; I am somebody who came to live in a foreign country, liked it and had to find a career path there in order to be able to stay. Localization was one of the options, I tried it and it worked for me. This business has had many twists and turns and has been forced to adapt and be flexible with each one of them. I think I have done the same, change and adapt to every new invention, I have tried to ride the wave.

There were already translation memories when I started, but I remember big changes in the way processes worked and, at each turn, more automation was embraced and implemented: I remember the jump from static translation dumps to on-demand localization and delivery, and the implementation of automatic sophisticated quality check-ups. I progressed and evolved mirroring the industry and, from a brief period as a translator, I moved on to work in different positions and departments within the localization workflow. This mobility has given me the opportunity to have a good understanding of the industry’s main needs and problems.

Six years ago, I stumbled upon Machine Translation (MT). At that time, it almost looked like chance, but having seen the evolution of the technology in this short period of time, now I know that I had it coming, we all did, we all do. It happened because a visionary head of localization requested the implementation of an MT program in their account. I was in the privileged position of being involved in that implementation and that meant that myself and my colleagues could experiment and experience Machine Translation output first hand. For somebody who can speak another language and who has a curious mind, this was a golden opportunity. For a couple of years, we evaluated MT output within an inch of its life: from a linguist point of view (error typology, human evaluation), using industry standards (Bleu, yes, Bleu, and others…), setting up productivity tests (how much more productive post-editing effort is when compared with translation effort), etc. We learned to deal with this new tool and we acquired experience that helped us estimate expectations.

It feels like a lifetime ago. During the last few years, industry research has zoomed in on Machine Translation; as a consequence, there has been a colossal amount of research and studies done by industry and academia on the subject ever since. As we all know.

And I still haven’t mentioned Neural MT (NMT).

The Wondrous NMT

Geeky as it sounds, from the point of view of Machine Translation, I can consider myself quite privileged, as I have experienced directly the change from Statistical Machine Translation (SMT) to Neural while working for a Machine Translation provider. Again, I was able to compare the linguistic output produced by the previous system (SMT) and the new one (NMT) and see the sometimes very subtle, but significant differences. 2017 was a very exciting year.

NMT has really begun to be commercially implemented the last year but, after all the media attention (including in blogs like this one) and focus on industry and research forums, it feels as if it has been here forever. Everything goes very quick these days, proof of it is that most (if not all) Machine Translation providers have adopted this new technology in one way or another.

Technology Steals The Show

Technology is all around us, and it is stealing the show. I would love to do an experiment and ask an outsider to read articles and blog posts related to the localization industry for a month and then ask them, based on what they had read, what the level of technology adoption is in their opinion. I think they would say that the level of adoption, let’s focus on MT, is very high.

I see a different reality though; from my lucky position, I see that many companies in the industry are still hesitant, and maybe one of the reasons for it is fear. Fear of not fully understanding the implications of the implementation, the logistics of it, and of course, fear of not really grasping how the technology works. Because it is easy to understand how Translation Memory (TM) leverage works, but Machine Translation is a different thing.

I have no doubt in my mind that in five years’ time the gap will be closed; but at the moment there is still a large, not so vocal, group of people who are still not sure of how to start. For them, it might feel a bit like a flu jab, it is painful, may not really work, but most people are adopting it, it kind of has to the done. All other companies seem to be adopting it, they feel they need to do the same, but how? And when we ask how it should include questions like how is this technology going to connect with my own workflow; do I use TMs as well, how do I make it profitable, what is my ROI going to be, how do I rate post-edited words, what if my trusted translators refuse to post-edit, how many engines do I need, one per language, one per language and vertical, one per language and domain…?

MT for Humans

Many of the humans I have worked and dealt with are putting on a brave face, but sometimes they struggle with the concepts; a few years ago it was Bleu, now it is perplexity, epochs… Concepts and terms change very fast. For the industry to fully embrace this new technology a bigger effort might need to be done to bring it to the human level. The head of a language company will probably know by now that NMT is the latest option, but might not really care to comprehend what the intrinsic differences between one type of MT and the others are. They might prefer to know what the output is like, how to implement it, how to train their workforce (translators and everybody else in the company) on the technology from a practical point of view; is it going to affect the final quality, what does a Quality Manager or a Language lead need to know about it, what about rates, can a Vendor Manager negotiate a blanket reduction for all languages and content types? How is it going to be incorporated into the production workflow?

I think 2018 is going to be the year of mass adoption and more and more professionals are going to try to figure out all these questions. Artificial intelligence is all around us, the new generations are growing with it, but today this new bridge created by progress is still being crossed by very many people. Not everybody is on the other side. Yet.

Dublin, 12.I.18

Laura Casanellas is a localization consultant specialised in the area of Machine Translation deployment. Originally from Spain, she has been living in Ireland for the last 20 years. During that time, Laura has worked in a variety of roles (Language Quality, Vendor Management, Content Management) and verticals (Games, Travel, IT, Automotive, Legal) and acquired extensive experience in all aspects related to Localization. Since 2011, Laura has specialized in Language Technology and Machine Translation; until last year, Laura worked as a Product Manager and head of Professional Services in KantanMT.

Outside of her professional life, she is interested in biodiversity, horticulture, apiculture, and sustainability.

The result of some of the evaluations mentioned on the blog are collected in a number of papers:

Empirical evaluation of NMT and PBSMT quality for large-scale translation production
(2017) Shterionov, D., Nagle, P., Casanellas, L., Superbo, R., and O’Dowd, T.

Assumptions, expectations, and outliers in post-editing
 (2014) Laura Casanellas & Lena Marg: Assumptions, expectations, and outliers in post-editing. EAMT 2014, Dubrovnik

Connectivity, adaptability, productivity, quality, price: getting the MT recipe right
(2013) Laura Casanellas & Lena Marg: Connectivity, adaptability, productivity, quality, price: getting the MT recipe right XIV Machine Translation Summit, Nice


  1. A very true description of the situation in the language business right now. The "hype" documented in the familiar industry media outlets doesn't reflect where smaller LSPs, let alone individual translators stand at the moment. Thank you for this post!

    1. MT has been around for over 70 years, with a recurring "hype". This might be the time for leaving the "hype" stage and entering the "slope of enlightenment." Unfortunately, as Kirti correctly states in his introduction, most players in the industry have always been... reluctant to see technology as a strategic business component, and anticipate and embrace its evolution. This is the reason why most smaller LSPs and freelancers lag dramatically behind their customers. Well, actually many freelancers (vendors) are more ready and proactive than their clients (LSPs).
      Who should "educate" the media about translation technology? Do you really think that one or two independent consultants and consulting firms can? And how many of them are really independent?

      Laura writes "some companies have a person specialized in MT". I wonder how many out of the roughly 20.000 translation firms and companies in NA and WE. And still I'm impressed those having "a person" think one is enough, while in the near future every company is going to need a DS/ML/DL/AI department.

    2. I agree with you Luigi, and this is one of the points of my piece; technology is relentlessly progressing and humans are playing catching up. This is the reality I see; but I also see a different attitude, before it was "should we?" and now is more "when are we going to do it?" and, very specifically, -and I think this is what stops many organizations- "how are we going to go about it?"

  2. Hi Katrin, yes, this is the reality I have seen in the last couple of years; some companies (more and more, it is true) have a person specialized in MT, but not all of them. This is another skill they need to master.

  3. Great post, Laura. One question that I like is: Would all the investment in MT (through having your own trained engine or to "buy" it from an MT provider) compensate the price reduction I would need to offer to my customer (as an LSP) and to apply (to translators)? Sometimes MT needs to be offered because it is what the customer expects in terms of price discount, but it does not make sense financially for the LSP (the investment in time and effort).

    1. Indeed, Ana, as any other investment in technology, it needs to be weighed against the company's expected ROI; luckily there are a number of solutions in the industry to choose from; some of them might be more adaptable to the needs of an LSP than others. I think it is time for the industry to start “thinking out of the box”, and when implementing the technology, I would always have this question in mind: how can I make it as productive and profitable as possible?