Google’s translate tool has created its own solution to greatly expand its automated capabilities. It can now translate between two languages even without a specific “dictionary” to do so.
The company recently switched Google Translate away from its “traditional” method of consulting a known list of phrases and their equivalent in different languages. Instead it’s now using Neural Machine Translation, which tries to simulate the way human brains learn languages, in particular taking advantage of context to produce more natural sounding translations of entire sentences.
One big problem is that it means starting over on the various combinations of languages between which the system can translate. As organizations such as the United Nations and European Union have experienced, adding new languages rapidly increases the number of possible combinations that need to be covered. For example, moving from two to three languages means adding two new combinations. Moving from 25 to 26 languages means adding 25 different combinations. Given Google currently supports 103 languages, that’s 5,253 different combinations to cover.
However, the system has effectively figured out the smart solution, namely using an intermediate language. Although Google staff haven’t specifically trained the system to do so, it’s independently figured out that if it’s learned a translation of a Japanese phrase into English and has also learned a translation of the same phrase from English to Korean, it can in turn translate from Japanese to Korean.
Even more impressively, it turns out this isn’t simply a case of cross-referencing word and phrase lists among three real-world languages. Instead, analysis of the network data shows the system is organizing its database of each language by concept. Google staff believe the system is effectively using its own interlingua, which is a basic artificial language that covers these concepts and acts as the go-between when translating a new combination of languages.