Software breaches language barrier

It sounds like a cure for the global auto industry's Tower of Babel problem. At Ford Motor Co. plants in Europe and South America, hourly workers use computers to automatically translate assembly instructions from English into their native languages.

Type 'the door won't shut' in English. Out comes la porte ne fermera pas in French.

Other companies use the technology for their Web sites. A report from the Aberdeen Group - a Boston, Massachusetts, information-technology consulting firm - projects the growth rate of Asian Internet usage through 2003 at 39 percent compared with 14 percent in North America. What it means is that Web users - and shoppers - will choose products and services based on the appeal of Web sites to their own cultural preferences.

writing on the virtual wall

'Reading the writing on the virtual wall, U.S. enterprises are acknowledging the urgency of ensuring a systematic approach to globalize corporate Web sites,' the report says.

The process of tailoring a Web site or service to a specific market is known as localization. The software technologies employed to assist this process take a variety of approaches: building specialty vocabularies, reusing previous translations and the automatic conversion of text from one language into another. But like other new e-tools, translation technology has shortcomings. 'Because of the complexity of language, these tools cannot be expected to work without human intervention,' warns the Localization Industry Standards Association, a Swiss trade group.

Ford's use of the translation software from Systran SA bears this out. Engineers who write instructions in English find they have to carefully build a vocabulary that must be used in a structured fashion. A big reason for that is due to the specialized nature of automotive technology, which has its own language. Engineers also have to write instructions so translations are clearly understood. This is critical for the assembly of vehicles with thousands of parts.

The translation software 'is useful but there's a lot of work to be done,' admits Nestor Rychtyckyj, a technical specialist at Ford. Still, he predicts the technology will become more important to the industry.

For now, Systran software in Ford plants is a minor tool in what is an enormous chore. Ford each year translates the equivalent of 700,000 pages of text from English into other languages, estimates Lisa Stobierski, Ford's customer advocacy strategy manager. These include owner's manuals, service guides and engineering documents.

Stobierski says the industry has a huge need for translators. But these people also need to have a grasp of automotive technology, she says. 'We need them to understand the industry,' she says.

it's going to get better

As the volume of Web information grows, industry experts and business users are determined to perfect and expand the use of automated translation services, says Systran CEO Dimitri Sabatakakis.

'This is a real necessity for e-commerce,' says Sabatakaki. 'All the players want to make this happen.'

Sabatakakis points to a large-scale use of Systran's software at Autodesk Inc., a software company in San Rafael, California, as an example of how the technology may best be used. Autodesk's technical support functions were traditionally in English and handled by attendants, he says. But translating information that way takes a lot of time and is expensive.

development took decades

Using Systran software, Autodesk has compiled a knowledge base for tech support that is the core of its Web system. The system handles English and other languages automatically.

Translation technology has been under development since the 1960s. But it is just now becoming commercial on a large scale, Sabatakakis says. Systran, in Soisysous-Montmorency, France, is booking revenue at $10 million annually.

Systran is not the only company automakers or their suppliers are using. IBM Corp. offers language translation technology for automotive suppliers as part of its digital engineering service. The software can handle communication from a single language into another. Or it can handle simultaneous translation between two languages.

'As I'm typing it in English, you're reading it in kanji,' says Rick Fournier, principal in IBM's Global Services automotive practice. Kanji is a writing system used by the Japanese. Fournier says businesses using IBM's technology 'find it 80 to 90 percent correct.' Still, users are told to shun colloquialisms and slang to ensure effective results.

where it might be used

Fournier sees the technology being applied to the exchange of assembly and shipping data, business and engineering collaboration and the Internet chat rooms for automotive engineering projects.

What is next? Fournier says IBM is developing automated translation services to handle live voices transmitted over Internet telephone links. Individual accents and dialects present a special challenge for the live service. But this is critical for companies building a corporate presence that is accessible globally. Says Fournier: 'We can't presume that everyone speaks English.'

E-mail writer John Couretas at

You can reach John Couretas at

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