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Language Translation in the Internet Age

Magazine article Searcher

Language Translation in the Internet Age

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The internet has become a major communications system engulfing all aspects of commerce, government, education, information, healthcare, and other arenas. However, webpages are developed not only to convey information, but to market items. Webpages are designed to attract users and to keep them coming back. Along with poor design and typos, issues of unclear messages plague many websites today.

The first part of this article series covered transcription and voice-command searching over the internet ("Voice Recognition Arrives!," Vol. 19, No. 9, November 2011, pp. 20-29, 46). Another key area for which technology is hoping to assist searchers is in the area of language translation.

A Profusion of Languages

With the use of computers for nearly everything today--news, shopping, education, communication, information--it seems only natural to assume that computers will somehow play a major role in helping us deal with the increasingly global aspect of the internet and, in particular, the profusion of languages being used.

Take, for example, the case of the European Union. The EU is currently composed of 27 individual member states. Today's EU webpage offers a choice of 23 languages in order to "localize" EU information and opportunities to their members [http://euro]. Today, the EU is also involved in 20 research projects, related to "interface of language and digital content, supported by 67 million [euro] of EU funding and the new projects submitted this year will get an additional 50 million [euro]." In order to "ensure more accessibility to web content for everyone," the EU has embarked on a program called the Digital Agenda for Europe [].

One of the issues, which surfaced in EU-sponsored research released in January 2011, provides telling insight into user behavior in a multilingual environment:

   While 90% of internet surfers in the EU prefer to access websites
   in their own language, 55% at least occasionally use a language
   other than their own when online.... However, 44% of European
   Internet users feel they are missing interesting information
   because web pages are not in a language that they understand and
   only 18% buy products online in a foreign language. The results
   underline the need for investment in online translation tools so
   that EU Internet users are not excluded from finding information or
   products online because they lack the language skills.


The Paradox of Translation

Translation is intended to make communication more precise and accessible to an audience. However, the problems in trying to translate information in a global community can seem overwhelming.

The enormity and complexity of the translation problem can be seen in the experience of India. The country has 22 official languages--and a hundred others as well--all spoken by some percent of the country's nearly 900 million people. A concerted effort led by the Language Technologies Research Centre [] is working to apply advanced technology, statistical machine learning, and dictionary- and rules-based algorithms to make it easier to translate from any one of these 122 languages to another, allowing for better communication within India. A prototype system was launched in 2010 [].

Studies have shown, as with the EU case, that factors impacting ongoing use of a website include its being in one's native language and meeting expectations and cultural sensibilities. (See Figure 1 below.) "On the Internet, Web users spend more time and come back more often to the Web sites that are in their native language and appeal to their cultural sensibilities. Visitors to a Web site would stay twice as long if the content on the Web site were available in their own language. …

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