News | 09.04.2010

Is automatic translation on the cards for Twitter?

Speculation has been mounting about Twitter’s plans to incorporate a machine translation feature into their microblogging site. This would mean that tweets could be translated almost instantaneously into a variety of different languages with a single click! Currently, many different applications are available which are compatible with Twitter, but this is the first time that hints have been made towards an integrated automatic translation tool.

In November 2009, Spanish became Twitter’s third language (preceded by English and Japanese) and this was a move which resulted in a 50% increase of sign-ups from Spanish speaking countries. French, Italian and German languages followed shortly afterwards and social media site Mashable.com have reported that half of all messages posted on Twitter are in a language other than English – a percentage proving the importance of linguistic diversity to the Twitter landscape. According to Twitter’s official blog, translations of the interface into Portuguese and Indonesian are currently in progress in a project supported by volunteer translators.

In March 2010, online rumours emerged that Twitter was planning to roll out an integrated automatic translation tool. Appscout.com reported on a ‘translate link’ attached to a tweet which allowed ‘a user to filter a tweet by language, from Arabic to Icelandic, to Thai’. Unfortunately to date, Twitter has released no information about this new feature and there is still a mystery surrounding the future developments of such a facility.

Whilst this is exciting news for the development of multilingual communications, there are still certain elements which must be considered when using any automatic translator. For Twitter, each tweet is restricted to 140 characters and sometimes includes a URL which diminishes the available space even further. These parameters already pose a host of problems for professional translators (such as those employed to translate athletes’ messages from international sporting events for example) as the translations must be equally concise, retain meaning, whilst remaining within the character boundaries. Translation from Chinese into English is a fitting example whereby the English target text would be a lot longer than the original Chinese source text.

There are also the legal implications of publishing translated texts in the public domain without any quality assessment procedures in place or without the ability to verify the accuracy of the target text. This could mean that authors of posts on Twitter could become open to criticism and possible legal action.

It will be interesting to see whether Twitter is planning to introduce an automatic translation feature and if so, how it will compare to the Google Translate software. Twitter’s popularity continues to grow daily and with the high speed global communications we enjoy today, it is a resource which businesses cannot afford to overlook. The ability to reach such a wide audience in a relatively short period of time is part of its appeal and multilingual posting is certainly an asset – but a badly translated tweet travels just as fast as it’s properly translated and localized counterpart!

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