Globalink Translation Software
Bedrich ChaIoupka, GIobaIink
No science fiction device requires the suspension of disbelief quite like the universal translator, which would dispel the improbability of conversing with newly encountered aliens. But it’s long been a dream of real-world spies and educators alike, and software engineers have struggled for decades to write programs that can pick apart the nuances of one earthly tongue and convert it into another. Now programmers are well on their way to creating programs for the instantaneous computer translation of foreign languages.
One veteran of the machine-translation effort has been at it since the 1950s. Back then, at Georgetown University, Czech-born Bedrich Chaloupka helped develop CIA-funded computer programs designed to translate Russian texts into English. But in 1966 the project ended when the lengthy programs were declared unworkable.
But the brute-force approach of those programs has gone the way of the ballroom-size computers that ran them. Today Chaloupka is chief scientist at Globalink, in Fairfax, Virginia, and the brains behind the company’s GTS line of software for the personal computer. These programs, which translate English into French, German, Russian, or Spanish, and vice versa, have won acclaim for both quality of translation and speed of operation.
The elegance of the GTS software begins with the dictionary, the backbone of any machine-translation program. As the program reads each word of the source text (in the language to be translated), it first verifies the word in a computerized dictionary. Once it finds the word, the program encounters a numerical value, known as a pointer, that’s stored with the word. The pointer identifies the memory location of the equivalent word in a second dictionary, and then stores words in the second, or target, language.
What distinguishes GTS from other translation software is that the pointers associated with words in foreign-language dictionaries all lead the program to their English-language equivalents. The pointers for the German word Tisch and the Spanish word mesa have the same numerical value, the memory address of the English word table.
Keying each translation into English, says Chaloupka, provides several advantages. For one thing, a translator working with a computer operating system that can harness several programs at once could translate Spanish directly into German by running the Spanish-English and German- English software simultaneously. The consistency of the pointers also allows for easy manipulation and upgrading of the various dictionaries. Just as language always undergoes evolution, says Chaloupka, so do these programs. They were built to be modified.
In addition, Chaloupka has set up the GTS dictionaries so that each word, regardless of its length, occupies the same number of bits of memory. This uniformity allows the program to whiz through the dictionary during searches.
But GTS software doesn’t stop at word-for-word translation. It goes on to analyze the semantic nuances of ambiguous words. The word left, for example, plays different roles in They left the stadium and There’s nothing left, but GTS software clarifies these roles by checking the word’s immediate neighbors.
The resulting translation may lack a human translator’s smoothness--the programs work best with unpoetic technical documents--but it’s usually good enough to massage into acceptability. Even with all these subroutines, Chaloupka has managed to whittle down the computer instructions in GTS software to a mere 10,000--fewer than a tenth the number in the original, government-sponsored efforts. And this brevity represents nearly 30 years of progress in combining computerization with linguistic techniques. The programs are now compact enough to be stored on just about any standard desktop computer. Says Chaloupka: Machine translation is like a chess game--in how many moves can you finish off your opponent? We wanted to figure out the shortest possible way.
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