A landmine by any other name

Captain Kirk had it easy. He was on a mission to boldly go where no one had gone before. But luckily for him, the English language had already travelled to the farthest reaches of the universe, making human-alien relations a snap.

And for those few alien races who had actually managed to create their own language, he had the universal translator at hand, ready to decipher at an instant’s notice just about any foreign tongue it came across.

But the English language doesn’t have the dominance on Earth, or in Canada, that it does in Captain Kirk’s universe. And this linguistic diversity can sometimes lead to a lot of confusion.

For the Department of National Defence (DND), such confusion can have potentially deadly consequences. That’s why the DND decided to implement TRADOS Corp.’s MultiTerm, a terminology management system which the department hopes will help it standardize the terminology it uses when translating information.

And where the military is concerned, accurate translation can mean the difference between life and death, said Capt. Brian Nelson, head of defence terminology and a part of the information management segment within national headquarters in Ottawa.

“We work with explosives and we have training schools where you develop a curriculum by standard’s cell to correctly teach the use of explosives to experts. You think of de-mining, what are all the processes? The same notional content – the exact same notional content has to exist in both documents, French and English. You can’t just have the gist of it. If you have the gist of it, you can get blown up. It has to be exactly the same,” he said.

So when the department deals internally, with NATO or goes somewhere on a peacekeeping mission, it wants to make sure that all of their personnel are on the same page.

With the help of Alexandria, Va.-based TRADOS, the DND hopes to elimiate as many synonyms as possible, Nelson said.

“It’s important for people talking to each other operationally that they have a common working vocabulary, especially when people are learning a second language. This greatly facilitates bilinugalism.”

The DND has been operating bilingually since the 1880s, Nelson said. It currently has about 245 manuals of terminology, including lexicons and glossaries.

“It’s so diverse and so spread across the department that we really found we needed to bring them all together,” Nelson said.

This is especially necessary in the age of online search engines.

“Inconsistencies from one glossary to another and then its use in that particular domain become readily apparent when you do a search and things start popping up side by side,” he said.

long road

But the department had identified the problem long before the rise of browsable sites.

“We’d tried over the last 15 years having stuff done by contractors off-site, and it just wasn’t a good solution. It didn’t really work out that well,” he said.

“(The department) had two experiences (with outsourcing). Both of ’em turned out not very good, and very expensive…I’ll just leave it at that. It just wasn’t a good experience and we realized we needed to control it ourselves.”

The issue was identified in the late 1980s and articulated at a senior executive level in 1990, Nelson said.

Originally, the department wanted software that would correct grammar and not let users write incorrectly. A statement of requirement was sent out to the industry in 1995, and the DND got back three responses, all at approximately the $3 million range.

But the department fell on hard times, and began significantly downsizing, Nelson said. Also, it’s infrastructure improved. Back in 1995, the DND didn’t have an intranet or a common internal e-mail system.

So, the department decided to exploit these systems. It also decided to take some of the emphasis off the machine making the decision and leave it in the hands of trained personnel with authority.

“We found that we had to eliminate some of the higher functionality requirements that no commercial off-the-shelf product could provide. And that was the key thing. There was a key policy decision to go with commercially available products – to get out of the research and development business because it’s expensive.” Instead of having the software make decisions on grammar, the DND decided to leave that in human hands,” he said.

“We sort of took a step back and said, ‘Well, that’s what we send people to university for – to give them an education. Let’s [assume] that they’re intelligent people and we can teach them how to write properly.”

The military came across TRADOS in 1997 because it was being used by some in NATO, but being a public institution, they established the requirements they were looking for, and sent a request out to public tender over the past year.

“And it was that TRADOS best met the requirements,” Nelson said.

The software allows the defence department to take advantage of its current systems.

“The simple fact that we do have an intranet now and you can have an online browsable databank, well, you can very economically have tens of thousands of people query one databank and get the information they need. That’s the revolution that the information era and browsable technology has brought to us. So we could step into modern technology and make sure that our requirements are in line with current technology.”

The DND is currently in the process of building its terminology databank on TRADOS’s MultiTerm database, collating key terminology, “deconflicting” some of the terminology and bringing it up to date, Nelson said.

The department is aiming at one record per notion. And if there are two acceptable synonyms, they’ll both go on the same record.

human traslation needed

TRADOS wanted to build software to aid translators, said Dev Ganesan, the company’s president and CEO.

“Human translation is critical. You need human translation for business – you just can’t do it automatically because it’s too risky,” he said.

TRADOS also has a product called Translation Workbench, which is translation memory software. It stores documents that have already been translated, and then when a translator gets a new document to translate, it searches through the document, looking for sentences that might have already been translated. This is designed cut down on the time that it takes to translate material.

Steve McClure, a research VP in IDC’s software research group in Framingham, Mass., believes that companies should steer clear of machine translation, especially when it comes to forward-facing documents.

“The quality of machine translation is such that it limits itself so that people can’t tolerate it.”

Products like those of TRADOS “are being used because [companies] need to have translation that people will not snicker at because it’s imperfect.”

The problem with products such as the Workbench is getting people to use it, McClure said.

“Some of them may not like it because it forces them to use someone else’s translation.”

Nelson admits that this is also a concern with the MultiTerm software.

“That’s always an issue. And education and awareness is one of the main ways around it,” he said. But though the databank has not yet been advertised, it already gets about a thousand hits a week, he said.

“There’s an understanding that a lot of the day-to-day terminology takes time to be embraced, and it comes through training, albeit, this is the military and we do have the aspect of authority that a lot of the other institutions may not have.”