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Interpreting : The language of signs

ABC Online
Nelson Mandela's Soweto memorial service in December 2013 took a surreal turn when it became apparent the sign language interpreter was making it up as he went along. The deaf community worldwide was shocked and insulted. The episode has ...
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Eyeing Expansion In The BRICs, eBay Doubles Down On Machine Learning And Context Translation

In 2013, eBay announced a big focus on growth in emerging markets for its marketplace, in particular, Russia, Brazil and China. Some of this growth can be enabled through localization, but the marketplace has tested a more technical approach — with machine translation — with its first big expansion effort in Russia.

To spearhead these efforts, eBay brought on machine translation expert Hassan Sawaf, a data scientist whose career spans more than 20 years in speech recognition and human translation technologies. He’s also the patent holder on hybrid machine translation, a system and method for using machine translation to translate from one language into another.

As Sawaf explains to us, language translation can be a source of friction between buyers and sellers on eBay, and his goal was to go beyond word-for-word translation into what he calls context translation. This means that Sawaf is helping build engines that ‘learn’ from context of the data (like item descriptions) rather than just more standard word-by-word translations.

Here’s the current problem eBay faces in emerging countries like Russia. eBay is trying to curate inventory from a global base of sellers and surface this to buyers in emerging eBay markets based on what ships to them in their respective countries. A Russian user can go to the localized version of eBay and see all products that are listed in Russian. When they are inputting search terms in Russian, this engine will produce search results of listings that match the query in Russian. But the Russian user’s query will not be able to see posts that match their query that were written by sellers listing in English. In order to access English listings, which do represent a considerable number of the listings on eBay’s platform, Sawaf explains, the Russian user would have to input the query on eBay in English.

“Machine translation normalizes this,” says Sawaf.

For the past year, Sawaf and his team of 14-15 data scientists and engineers have built a technology that allows Russian users to search in Russian, but be able to return queries with English listings that match. Sawaf’s technology takes it one step further, and will determine that a ‘purse’ in an item description, also refers to ‘bag,’ or ‘item,’ or ‘piece,’ providing a more accurate representation of the item in the Russian language. Sawaf says that the search technology, which just launched a month ago, returns signficantly more results for Russian eBay users. And twice the amount of users in Russia are inputting search queries in their native language. It’s unclear how this has translated into an increase sales and transactions in the marketplace, which is the ultimate goal.

Now that Sawaf has this scalable infrastructure in place, the team will be expanding this to other languages in emerging markets. We hear that the team is tackling Spanish and Portuguese, focusing on Brazil and Latin America.

Some e-commerce companies outsource some of the machine translation work to third-party providers, and eBay considered this, but Sawaf tells us that, “to develop the best, you have to do it on your own.” Plus, there is some third-party user data that eBay did not want to share with third parties.

We’re told that along with this improvement in search, eBay is also attempting to make improvements for Russian users with payments, shipping (an area that has faced some challenges in Russia) and other services in these markets. Another interesting takeaway is that eBay’s ultimate goal in these emerging markets is to offer more in B2C selling on the platforms, and find ways to get more local businesses selling on eBay online.

While eBay says Russia has been a No. 1 priority, it will be interesting to see how the improvement in technologies translates into actual sales. And how eBay’s localization performance in other markets will also be a way in which we can grade whether machine learning is working.

It’s worth noting that India hasn’t been a success story for eBay. As TechCrunch writer Pankaj Mishra wrote recently, despite entering India early, eBay has not become the dominant leader. eBay backed local e-commerce marketplace SnapDeal in a possible effort to make up for past mistakes. SnapDeal is six to seven times bigger than eBay in volume of business. Interestingly, Sawaf and eBay didn’t really mention India in the localization and machine-learning efforts.

But if eBay’s machine-learning technology can translate into an increase of sales in emerging e-commerce markets like Latin America and Russia, this could represent billions in new revenue. Stay tuned.


World Bulletin / News Desk

Al Jazeera has announced that it is launching its Turkish language service on January 22. This will include a Turkish language website, mobile applications and a digital magazine.

It is also highly anticipated that a Turkish language TV channel will also be established next year.

Al Jazeera Turk General Manager Ismail Kizilbay said ‘With Turkey at the forefront, our aim is to provide a service for the entire Turkish speaking world. This includes those in around 130-140 million people in Europe, the Balkans, the Caucuses, Central Asia and the Middle-East.’

Turkish News Director Gurkan Zengin added, ‘Our fundamental aim is to provide a news service that is accurate the non-biased, maintaining an equal distance from all viewpoints, and to always be on the side of the people.’

Al Jazeera already provides a news service via over 70 bureaus across 40 countries around the world.

Online academy launches Myanmar translation videos

A leading United States online education institute has translated 100 of its videos into Myanmar language so that internet users here can access “a world-class education”.

The California-based Khan Academy is a non-profit organisation that aims to provide "a world-class education for anyone, anywhere". More than 6 million users across the world access Khan Academy websites each month.

However, it says only about 200 people in Myanmar are currently using its resources, which include a library of more than 6000 educational videos and practice exercises in subjects from basic maths to college level biology and art history.

Thanks to the efforts of California-based Myanmar academic U Nyunt Than and a team of US and Myanmar-based volunteers with the Khan Academy Burmese Translation project (www.khanacademyburmese.org), an initial 100 videos have already been translated.

Speaking at the launch in Yangon on January 12, U Nyunt Than, who is also chair of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, said the videos and exercises allow pupils to progress at their own pace.

"Along with technology, online learning is changing how people are educated,” he said.

"The Khan Academy functions by analysing [via computer] the behaviour of users to find out what is best for their progress.”

He said more translators are needed to help the project reach its full potential.

"It's taken about eight months for the Burmese translations so far to [be completed]. We connected with the University of Berkeley’s software engineering department, which built a web application for translating materials into Burmese," he said.

Because of budget restrictions, the videos have only got Myanmar subtitles and have not been dubbed.

"The project is done by volunteers who can pick and choose what they want to translate.  Anyone can translate if you have the resources [such as skills and internet access] you can come on board and the Khan Academy will show you how to progress.”

The Khan Academy system, which has now been translated into more than 30 languages, aims to give students control over their own learning and the pace at which they proceed. Using its website, they progress only once they've understood they have understood the material properly rather than at the time set by a teacher.

U Nyunt Than said the Khan Academy's resources work alongside the standard curriculum rather than replace it.


Banipal awards 2013 literary translation prizes

BEIRUT: The Banipal Trust for Arab Literature announced the results of the 2013 Saif Ghobash Banipal Arabic Literary Translation prize Thursday.

It was awarded to two translators – William Maynard Hutchins for his translation of Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal’s “A Land without Jasmine” and Jonathan Wright for his rendering of Egyptian scholar Youssef Ziedan’s “Azazeel.”Established in 2005 by Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation, and the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature, the $5,000 prize is awarded to full-length works of fiction written during or after 1967 and first published in translation the year prior to the award. Entries are judged by four experts, two of whom read the works in the original Arabic as well as in translation.

This year marks the first time that the jury has awarded the prize to two authors outright, rather than selecting a winner and a runner-up. The judging panel consisted of renowned translator Humphrey Davies, playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak and authors Rajeev Balasubramanyam and Meike Ziervogel, and was chaired by Paula Johnson of the Society of Authors. The winning titles were selected from among 21 entries.

The judges hailed Wright’s translation of “Azazeel,” which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as “a masterful achievement.” The book, which is set is fifth-century Egypt, works on many levels, historical, theological and spiritual, they said, and “the translation is notable for its delicacy and well-judged restraint and deftly captures the feeling of the original.”

Hutchin’s translation of “A Land Without Jasmine” was praised by judges for “creating an enjoyable English read and at the same time preserving the soul of the original.”

Ahdal’s novel, a thriller centering on the disappearance of a university student, Jasmine, is told from the point of view of multiple characters and tackles social and political issues such as sexual representation and corruption in public institutions.

“Altogether a gripping page-turner from a talented writer,” the judges’ announcement read, “superbly translated by William Maynard Hutchins.”

An award ceremony for English translations of novels in Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew and Spanish will be held in London Feb. 12, hosted by the Society of Authors and the Times Literary Supplement and introduced by Paula Johnson. Prizes will be awarded by Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, followed by readings from the winning translators.

A round table entitled “Literary Translation Arabic to English,” hosted by the trust, will take place Feb. 13, introduced by Wright and Hutchins and chaired by professor Yasir Suleiman, and will be followed by readings from both books.


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