Reengineering Babel

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Reengineering Babel

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America has gotten used to throwing its weight around in the world. By its bountiful resources and by the sheer size of its internal market, the United States carries enormous economic clout. The ugly American-the traveler or businessman who expects everyone else to speak his language and do things his way-has had a major impact on the world.

Add that to the influence of Britain and its former Commonwealth of English-speaking nations. Businesses and individuals around the world have seen the advantages of learning at least a little English, and various multinational corporations have adopted English as their lingua franca.

Some have predicted that this trend will continue till English completely dominates the world. But the business reality is different.

American companies are finding what European companies have long known: to grow internationally, you have to make your product make sense in the local language and market.

Even though English is being spoken more widely around the globe, we are a long way from an English-only world. No, today the Tower of Babel is being reengineered in different ways.

It's not that global businesses wouldn't like a single language. But when Microsoft and most of the major U.S. software companies make half of their money outside the United States, they quickly learn what the Japanese, French, Italian, German and Spanish speakers will buy. Adapting a piece of software for the Japanese market may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but losing those sales can make an even bigger impact on the bottom line.

Turning to technology

Every industry has its lingo, and the language industry is no exception. As editor of MultiLingual Computing & Technology magazine, I became immersed in this specialized field where software makers find they have to internationalize and localize their software, interfaces, documentation and marketing materials for specific language markets. At about $2 billion a year, this localization industry is just a tiny segment of the entire economy. Still, companies providing these services have been experiencing growth rates of 30, 50 or even 100 percent, year after year.

As the art of translation meets the science of productivity, terms like machine translation (MT), translation memory (TM) and other types of computer assisted translation (CAT) have spread in this important niche in the global economy.

Machine, or automatic, translation has been in development for more than 50 years, but has not yet approached the Universal Translator or Babelfish popularized in science fiction. You can find automatic translation on the Web, for example on AltaVista (, but it comes with disclaimers. The nuances of language are not easily reduced to the kinds of bytes that computers can crunch.

But research continues in this area, with companies like Caterpillar spending millions developing technology that, combined with a simplified version of English, promises savings on translation of Caterpillar's thousands of pages of documentation.

Even larger is the European Union's 20-year investment in the Systran system-a commercial version of Systran powers AltaVista's translation. Currently EU officials can request an automatic rough translation of 18 language pairs by e-mail. Often, to make it understandable, a human translator will be asked to give the output a quick edit.

According to the European Union Web site, "The use of machine translation has grown continuously over the last 10 years, and more than 400,000 pages were processed by EC Systran in 1998." In comparison, the EU's Translation Service, which employs more translators than any other organization in the world, produced about 1,200,000 pages in the 11 official languages of the EU.

Because of the quality of the translation, it's unlikely that machine translation will replace professional translators in the foreseeable future. Most of the productivity gains so far have been achieved with a variety of other tools that don't replace translators, but assist them.

Translation memory tools, for example, really help when a software company upgrades its product, perhaps changing 20 percent of the on-line help and documentation. The tools compare the old translation database with the new, and any sentences already translated don't need to be translated again.

New developments are constantly being made to increase speed and consistency. But with the volume of international trade and communication growing daily, some predict that the industry will never be able to keep up.

The beginning and the end

The Bible tells the beginning of the story of man's languages at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). God could see that man's plan and approach would soon repeat the mindset before the flood, when "every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). God saw that "indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them" (Genesis 11:6). God's response was to confuse their language. God threw in this confusion factor to keep mankind from communicating too well too soon in ways that would bring about its destruction.

The introduction of different languages served to divide humanity. It slowed the production and spread of knowledge. But in our frenzied information age those obstacles seem to have largely been overcome. As Daniel recorded about the time of the end: "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase" (Daniel 12:4).

Now, as the world plunges on in a dizzying spiral of greed and violence, the complications of language can still serve to divide. But we're told that the immoral economic and religious power described in Revelation is able to rule for a time over many nations and languages (Revelation 17:15).

This great trading power, whose spirit goes back to Babylon and Babel, is known for its international commerce and wealth. "The merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury" (Revelation 18:3). Perhaps this is partly made easier by the development of translation technologies. One thing's for sure: Without these behind-the-scenes developments, today's globalization boom would have been much harder to achieve. WNP