Amazon steps into the translation arena

June 28, 2017
Amazon steps into the translation arena

Professional translators are well used to the spectre of machine translation lurking in the background of their human translation services. Google and Microsoft have for years been investing heavily in their race to perfect machine translation. While neither has yet managed to do so, another big player has now stepped into the ring: Amazon. 

Amazon’s translation service

Amazon has been using its own translation technology for years. The retail giant operates 11 marketplaces around the world, including in the US, Mexico, India, China, Japan and a number of European countries. As a result, the company has been using translation technology to produce multi-language product information for some time. 

Indeed, Amazon has hosted annual machine translation events since 2006, where participants can compete by submitting their machine translation services for review and ranking. The most recent such event placed an emphasis on systems that are able to learn from user feedback, emphasising how keen Amazon is to rival Google, Microsoft and other big players in its efforts to conquer machine translation. 

Website and app translation focus

Having translated its own documents for many years, Amazon now seems keen to share its translation abilities more widely, with CNBC reporting that the online retailer will be targeting developers who are in need of website and app translation. The move follows Amazon’s purchase of translation start-up Safaba back in 2015. 

Like the other big industry players, Amazon is believed to have focused on the use of deep learning and neural networks in order to advance its machine translation prowess. These new uses of technology have helped machine translation to evolve greatly, though it still falls short of the translation perfection that human translators are able to achieve. 

The impact of Google’s shift from phrase-based translation to a neural network system was certainly noticed a few months ago. The change to its Japanese translation service resulted in positive feedback relating to the improved quality of the translations, highlighting the leap forward that artificial intelligence has contributed to machine translation efforts. 

The role of human translation

The professional translation industry is well used to the efforts being made to conquer machine translation and talk of the ‘threat’ that this causes to traditional, human translation. However, in reality human translation is alive and well, certainly for the time being. Many of those who try machine translation quickly come to understand its imperfections and see the value of using professional translators to work on their documents instead. Machine translation may work well for a sentence or two when you’re in a hurry and need a quick solution, but present a machine with a literary translation or a financial document and the quality of the copy it provides quickly goes downhill. After all, there’s a reason why Man Booker International Prize winners still use human translators! 

However, Amazon’s foray into the translation marketplace is likely to spur on Google, Microsoft and their ilk in their efforts to master machine translation, if only because of the potential revenue available to the company that finally cracks being able to produce flawlessly flowing translation. While the end may not yet be nigh, the shadow that machine translation casts over the human translation industry perhaps just lengthened a little. Amazon has yet to comment on its new translation venture, but we can be sure that the business will be heavily invested in ensuring that it is a success.  

Final thoughts

Does the news that Amazon will be offering a translation service worry you, or will human translation always be superior to that achieved by machines? Let us know your views by leaving a comment below. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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