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Google, Yahoo! BabelFish use math principles to translate documents online

"Suddenly we see enormous progress in this technology because of Google's push," says Dimitris Sabatakakis, chief executive of Systran, one of the oldest computer translation companies. (Systran powered Google Translate until 2007 and is still the engine behind the widely known Yahoo! Babel Fish computer translation service, which now uses a hybrid system combining both statistical and linguistic models for translation.)

All this means that someone such as Michael Cavendish, a lawyer based Jacksonville, Fla., can do human-rights work related to China. "Machine translation has been a godsend for someone like me who has trouble conversing in foreign languages, because I never got a chance to study them in depth," he said recently.

When Cavendish writes documents, e-mails or Twitter posts to communicate with dissidents and others in Chinese, he finds that a computer translation is pretty good - provided he keeps his English simple. So he doesn't go on about "ex post facto laws," he said, but simply says: "China arrested this man today for something that was legal yesterday."

After shunning linguistic system for many years, the statistical translation mainstream is now again embracing grammar and other language-specific rules to capture some nuances and improve accuracy.

Experts say that improvements in translation systems are only going to continue as the databases they use grow larger and as computer scientists are better able to incorporate linguistic information. Soon, researchers say, there will be more and better "speech to speech" software, which will allow simultaneous translation in meetings, for instance. The Pentagon is particularly interested in giving deployed soldiers the ability to communicate with locals: One project is focusing on translations between English and Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even as the field rapidly evolves, though, the kind of odd translations that Libby Casey encountered doing her laundry in Reykjavik are unlikely to vanish entirely - as Sandra Alboum recently found out. Alboum, who runs a translation company in Arlington, was perusing a manual for a half-million-dollar steel-manipulation machine that a client of hers had translated, using a computer, from German into English. "Do not step under floating burdens," it said.

She had to check the manual herself to figure out what was meant: "Do not stand under suspended loads."

Kakaes is a writer living in Washington.

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