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TechTip: Watson APIs - Language Translator

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Everybody seems to be talking to everyone these days - verbally, in writing, via mind control, you name it. But what happens when the people communicating speak different languages?

While it is probably true that more people across the world today speak English than ever before, it is also true that more people from different countries are talking to more people in other different countries than ever before. It is an inevitable consequence of our global world and something that businesses, governments, and non-profits have to deal with.

And it is not something that is related to just verbal communication. Have you bought any computer or electronics products recently? When you open the documentation, how many different languages is at least some of the verbiage written in? Gone are the days where it is only in English, French, and Spanish. Now it may be in a couple of dozen languages involving multiple alphabets.

How does a company handle this kind of diversity?

Historically, they have done this with a translation staff, but with the proliferation of languages, you would find yourself needing a potentially large number of translators on hand (whether as employees or occasional contractors), many of which might be hard to find in smaller markets.

Watson to the Rescue

Fortunately, IBM has a solution in the form of a Watson API that handles the translation of written materials from one language to another. The current website for this tool is https://www.ibm.com/watson/services/language-translator/, but as often as the IBM Watson web site seems to change, I can't promise that will work by the time you read this. If it doesn't, then I guess you're just out of luck. Or you could go to the Watson homepage and then click on Products and Services to open up the big drop-down menu and select Language Translator from there.

Translates Text

I guess the important thing to note right off the bat is that this translation software is for text documents, not direct conversations. But if you paired this with the Speech to Text application, you could get additional use from it.

Currently, IBM supports Arabic, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Dutch*, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish*, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian*, Spanish, and Turkish*. Languages with an asterisk are supported only in the new version of the Neural Machine Translator (NMT).

Let me explain the NMT. One of the most important things about the Watson API product line is that it's a moving target. IBM is not building an API and then just letting it sit there for the next five years while a bunch of spunky men and women in expensive suits try to sell the heck out of it.

Remember what Watson is: It is a learning machine, and as its capability grows, so does what it can do. The Neural Machine Translator is (these are my words, not IBM's) the next iteration in the Language Translator. I will reserve some space for a more detailed discussion of it at some future time (probably a couple of months).

Want a Demo?

Seeing is believing, right? Or maybe you believe Judy and that believing is seeing. I've heard it both ways. But if you are of the former persuasion, then go to the IBM page above, select the Demo tag and take a test drive yourself.

I did. But then, I ain't scared a nothin'. I just ain't that smart. Here is what I wrote (in English).

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men deserved to live free. Or die hard. And so my friends, I am asking you to make a choice. Do you wish to live free? Or Die Hard? Come on, mateys. Argh. Speak now lads or ye walk the plank.

I think you can see why some people are afraid to be alone with me or have me meet their children. But Watson is a machine, so it doesn't care. I chose German as the language to translate to. I took three years of high-school German and two semesters in college. (I was more successful with German than with Russian, where I took two semesters in college before my professor agreed to give me a D if I promised not to take any more.) This is what I got.

Vor vier Score und sieben Jahren haben unsere Vater auf diesem Kontinent eine neue Nation hervorgebracht, die in Freiheit gezeugt ist und der Uberzeugung verschrieben hat, dass alle Menschen, die es verdienen, frei zu leben. Oder stirb hart. Und so meine Freunde, ich bitte dich, eine Wahl zu treffen. Willst du frei leben? Oder Die Hard? Komm schon, Matey's. Argh. Sprich jetzt ladet oder ihr geht den Pank.

I may not be an expert, but I think it's pretty close.

The Chaser

I do remember enough German to know that this is a seriously good translation. The beauty of the language that Lincoln used may be gone, but for many technical or operational documents, that doesn't matter.

Do you have translation issues in your business? Maybe you don't. But more and more, people are selling internationally. From a political point of view, nationalism is gaining strength. But my money is on business, because business is money. And the days of selling to just our own country or getting materials from our own country are over. We have to deal with other languages to succeed. The only question is what tool we use to perform the necessary translations. Obviously, Watson is one of them.

David Shirey

David Shirey is president of Shirey Consulting Services, providing technical and business consulting services for the IBM i world. Among the services provided are IBM i technical support, including application design and programming services, ERP installation and support, and EDI setup and maintenance. With experience in a wide range of industries (food and beverage to electronics to hard manufacturing to drugs--the legal kind--to medical devices to fulfillment houses) and a wide range of business sizes served (from very large, like Fresh Express, to much smaller, like Labconco), SCS has the knowledge and experience to assist with your technical or business issues. You may contact Dave by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone at (616) 304-2466.


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