Language technologist: Europe needs a language infrastructure, not just Google Translate

Machine translation could improve the efficiency of the European institutions. [Shutterstock]

Europe’s language industry has lost ground to American technology companies. But it still has a chance to offer better services, says Jochen Hummel.

Jochen Hummel is Chairman of LT-Innovate, the European Association of the Language Technology Industry, he is also the CEO of ESTeam and Coreon.

He spoke with Christophe Leclercq, EURACTIV’s Founder.

Could you start by telling me what LT-Innovate is about?

LT-Innovate is an association of European language technology companies. We have about 180 members, primarily SMEs in Europe, and companies from different areas of language technology like translation, text analytics, text recognition. All areas of language technology.

It seems that the European translation industry is losing out to American initiatives, notably Google Translate. Why is that?

You are referring to the European machine translation industry and technology, because when it comes to language services, Europe is of course very strongly positioned. When it comes to technology, indeed, European companies are not that good at marketing their products and deploying them as commercial solutions. We develop a lot. Even Google Translate was originally developed by a European. But when it comes to converting these into marketable products, we are not as good as the Americans. That is also what we are trying to address in LT-Innovate, to help our members to develop better market strategies and alliances.

It seems that there is a market opportunity combining machine translation, and very cheap post-editing by humans, which could be a kind of Uber for translation. Who could do that? Could it be a European company?

It surely could be. I have been asked this question before. The thing is, it cannot really be compared with something like driving a car or hosting people with Airbnb, because that is something that everybody can do. Translation is actually a pretty complex process, and managing it still requires humans. It requires project managers and so on. So far, we have failed to create platforms so that we can automate this management, but eventually it will come by consolidating technologies and making it easier to process translations. Eventually we will see will be from an Uber of translation, but where will it come from? Current attempts are more promising in the US, simply because they have managed to raise tens of millions of dollars. In the end, it will also be a question of funding.

Let’s talk a little bit about an industrial policy for the language technology sector. The EU is funding a number of R&D projects. That’s one way of bringing money into the system. But it is also potentially a very important client of such services. How could it organise its procurement in a smarter way?

That’s right, the EU has been funding research in that area for decades, with some good results and some not so good results. But at the same time, the European Union is the biggest translation organisation in the world. Today, it spends over €1 billion per year financing that activity, so you can imagine how much money it could save by increasing productivity. And instead of funding research, it could also put out a call for tender and ask industry to deliver the kind of systems it would like. That would make industry more focused, and it could also lead to the delivery of better products in a quicker and more sustainable way.

So you would do away with the European officials that work as translators, and replace them with private sector service providers?

That’s not what I mean. Many of them work with very confidential documents, as civil servants, but they can only translate a fraction of what they are supposed to translate. It is a question of making them more productive and allowing them to focus on the interesting and creative part of their work, whilst automating the more repetitive tasks. A lot of gains could be made there. This would be a great way of advancing in the field of procurement, as the Americans are doing.

Finally, let’s turn to the private sector users. You have called for what you refer to as “language infrastructure”. What would it be and what would be its legal status?

It is a key aim of LT-Innovate to create something like a European language cloud, because when you develop language solutions, there are certain basic elements that you have to develop for each individual language. If you want to support ten languages you have to do them ten times. This is cost prohibitive for most companies, even big ones. So what we suggest is to have some sort of maintained language infrastructure that provides the basic language services, and on top of which companies can build their own solutions. As with other infrastructures, it should be run by a public or semi-public organisation, a non-profit organisation, which makes sure that it is accessible for every company and every user for a fair price and an optimal licencing scheme.

And it could be LT-Innovate itself that provides this?

Yes. As an organisation, LT-Innovate could operate such an infrastructure.

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