Money talks, and soon it will be easier to understand.
Language barriers can hinder international commerce, but that problem is increasingly being solved by machine-based translation programs, which are becoming sophisticated enough to enable people in different countries to communicate as if they spoke the same language.
Lily Chen, a sales manager with electronic-forklift company Taixing Jichuan Hydraulic Machinery Co. Ltd. in China, said she’s used Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s
built-in translation tools to communicate with buyers in Europe and the U.S. In an interview with MarketWatch using the technology, she explained that her English was “not very good” when she began as a salesperson and the translation software first helped her conduct professional communications with a customer in Germany and, later, with other buyers.
“I was a little nervous at first, but from the customer’s reply, the customer fully understood the meaning of the translation, which made me feel very confident,” Chen said. She deemed the software able to handle “the professional vocabulary of electric forklifts,” including fork width, loading capacity and after-sale service.
Translation programs aren’t yet tracked specifically by economists, but they have the potential to boost international trade, which stood at $19.5 trillion last year according to World Trade Organization estimates.
E-commerce’s international expansion
One big opportunity exists in e-commerce, where the giants of online shopping are already beginning to incorporate translation technology into their businesses. Take eBay Inc.
the San Jose, Calif.-based online marketplace, which quickly learned that while the internet has made it easy to connect buyers and sellers, international expansion wouldn’t be particularly effective if shoppers weren’t able to understand product listings from abroad.
The result is a system that enables shoppers to make search queries in their preferred language and receive translated product listings, while also taking into account the context of a customer’s request. Machine translation has to be smart enough to adjust its behavior based on whether someone is looking for a Galaxy Note 10 smartphone or a galaxy-print sweatshirt, for example, since the branded product doesn’t need to be rendered into a different language.
“Anything that supports cross-border trade so that someone from outside the U.S. is capable of engaging in e-commerce is where the power of global trade lives,” said Sanjeev Katariya, an eBay vice president who focuses on artificial intelligence.
EBay’s push for machine translation has helped the company increase Latin American exports by nearly 20%, according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and illustrates the potential for increased commercial activity as translation technologies gain wider adoption in business.
“By embedding translation tools, you’re fostering the most critical thing in trade: trust.”
The positive impact from translation ties into the “gravity” theory of trade, explains MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, in that trade between countries is usually dependent on how close they are geographically. “You can reduce transportation costs and make the world smaller by 20% or you can introduce translation and have the same effect,” he said in an interview.
Machine translation vs human translation
The stakes are high for retailers as e-commerce gets more global. In order to be accessible in the places where 90% of the world’s online spending happens, businesses must offer support on their sites for the 15 most economically beneficial languages, according to Donald DePalma, the chief research officer at Cambridge, Mass.-based CSA Research. Just four years ago, they would have only needed to feature 11 languages. To reach even more spenders — 99% of the online marketplace — today requires support for 56 languages.
Yet many sites offer support for far fewer. CSA looked at some 2,800 of the most trafficked sites globally and found that only 63% were multilingual. Those featured support for 7.8 languages, on average, in addition to the main language.
There’s a big gap between the average number of languages supported and the full scope of those that offer businesses some economic interest. “Machine translation provides some way for companies to get to more people,” DePalma said. This is particularly true in instances where companies may want to use human translation for the most critical parts of their sites but rely on computers to handle the rest.
CSA’s research didn’t capture how many of the top sites incorporated machine translation rather than human translation in their customer-facing presence, and in general it can be difficult to determine how many companies are making use of the technology due to the various ways it gets incorporated into businesses.
While eBay is among the online retailers that have offered machine translation for several years, a budding opportunity exists in business-to-business e-commerce, a market that U.S. government estimates say could be six times as large as the consumer-facing e-commerce market. Here, the technology has the potential to enable business conversations that were once nearly impossible due to language barriers. While larger enterprises can afford to hire human translators if they wish to work with a foreign partner, smaller operations don’t always have that luxury.
A cornerstone of Alibaba’s commercial platform is a real-time translation tool that lets small businesses communicate with suppliers overseas. Some 100,000 buyers exchange a total of 2 billion translated text messages every week on the Alibaba.com global-trade platform, and the company plans to introduce live video-chat translations later this year.
The idea behind Alibaba’s offering is that small businesses hesitate to look globally for suppliers because of language barriers but may be open to international commerce if they could effectively communicate.
Translation technology lets companies “operate like multinational companies but do so from wherever it is they do business,” said John Caplan, Alibaba’s head of North American B2B operations. “By embedding translation tools, you’re fostering the most critical thing in trade, which is trust, because if you can understand the person you’re doing business with and communicate clearly, you both can make informed decisions.”
Virtual lingua franca for gamers
For gamers, it’s easy enough to find people on the other side of the world willing to play at any given time, but communication problems have long kept players confined to what Microsoft
Distinguished Engineer Arul Menezes calls “language zones.” His company’s Translator product is now embedded in the chat function of games from Machine Zone, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based developer.
“If you were a Polish player, you could go online and there might be no other Polish players there,” Menezes said. “This basically globalized their product.”
Microsoft is also building Translator into its core offerings, such that speakers can give a PowerPoint presentation at a conference and allow those in the room who speak other languages to follow along with written translations on their own devices. The technology opens up the content of a presentation to people who ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to understand it.
Airbnb automatically translates communications between guests and hosts prior to arrival, so recent college graduate Julia Peña was surprised to get to her rental outside Los Angeles only to discover that her host didn’t speak any English. While Julia was there, however, the host made use of a “conversation” function on Google Translate
to ask Peña about her day and even offer to make her breakfast before a big job interview.
“It was definitely more comfortable being able to talk to each other,” Peña said of Google’s conversation function, which lets both parties speak into their mobile devices in their own languages and hear translated versions of what the other said.
While natural-language processing may never be able to capture the nuance and culture of a specific place, MIT’s Brynjolfsson said it’s easy to imagine a world in which we talk the way we normally would, only with little headphones that render the words into another tongue. An early attempt at reaching that end game comes from Chinese mobile gaming company Cheetah Mobile Inc.
, which is using Microsoft Translator in a small hand-held device meant to help tourists purchase items when they head abroad.
“Chinese travelers are one of the biggest groups of international travelers but when they go overseas, very few people speak Chinese,” said Menezes, who founded the Microsoft Translator product. “There’s huge demand for this kind of technology.”
In general, online habits tend to lead offline habits, according to Brynjolfsson, so the future of machine translation promises more physical-world applications for the technology.
While machine translation is getting smarter, many consumers still have memories of the humorous, incorrect outputs they’ve gotten from Google Translate and other programs while trying to send emails or complete homework assignments. For businesses and customers to trust the technology in a commercial setting, users need to feel more secure about the results since their cash is on the line.
“The forgiveness factor drops in monetary transactions,” eBay’s Katariya said. Shoppers who buy the wrong product because the description got lost in translation might abandon a retailer forever.
But Microsoft’s Menezes believes machine translation is near a point where it will be indistinguishable from human translation. He said the company’s research product, a more academic version of its translation system, is already “at parity” with output from human translators. Microsoft is working to scale that research technology so that it’s suitable for consumer and business use cases.
“You know you’ve really achieved success when a technology becomes invisible and fades into the background,” he said. “We’re on the cusp of the point where people take translation for granted because it just works.”