Machine translation at the LDS Church

"For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language..." - Doctrine and Covenants Section 90, Verse 11

It may come as no surprise that +The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains an impressive translation program in an effort to facilitate the fulfillment of this prophecy. The average church member may or may not know that the Church's distinguishing scripture, The Book of Mormon, has been translated into 107 languages (and counting). They may or may not be aware that the Church produced 100 million words of translated content in 2013. And they may or may not be aware that the Church actively publishes in over 100 languages. Here's a look at one technology the Church leverages to assist in this monumental task.

The term "machine translation" (MT) usually evokes one of several responses--enthusiasm, skepticism, or scoffing being the most common. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of MT, think Google Translate. Now you understand. Surely you've seen videos like this one (which are really awesome, by the way).

If so, you might be wondering whether MT has any practical application. Indeed, it does. The following information comes from a presentation given by Steve Richardson on February 25, 2014. The presentation was given at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, UT as part of a bi-monthly meeting of the Silicon Slopes Localization group.

Why does the Church invest in machine translation?
Demand for translation of church materials is rapidly increasing as membership continues to grow in non-English speaking locations around the world. The Church has a goal for MT to reduce the time required to translate by half. This, of course, helps reduce cost and increase total capacity. Translators in several languages have successfully achieved this goal.

What languages currently use machine translation?
As of this presentation, the Church supports MT for 19 languages. Not all 19 languages are in production, but all 19 have MT engines trained on church data and are producing results accurate enough to be useful to translators. About 9 are currently used in production, depending on content type. Initially, romance languages are proving most effective while Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and morphologically rich languages present a more difficult challenge.

What content currently leverages machine translation?, the main Church website, is published in 10 languages, including English. MT is applied in each target language. Other content, including, other Family History content, and letters and notices also utilize MT.

What process is followed to generate a finalized translation?
Unlike in traditional translation, linguists involved in this process are not asked to produce translations from scratch. Rather, they are shown a translation generated by MT and asked to correct, if needed, grammar mistakes and any major errors. This is called post editing. Translators receive training to help them learn this new skill. If they can't decide whether to use the MT within 3-5 seconds, they are encouraged to delete it and create an original human translation. On the whole, post editing reduces cost for two reasons. Linguists produce a higher volume in a shorter period of time, and there are fewer review steps in the overall process.

How much volume has been produced using this process?
To date, about 4 million words have been produced using MT and post editing.

Machine translation represents only one facet of technology that helps accomplish the work of translation at the Church. I've shared just a brief review of my notes from a presentation that was chock full of more juicy details. If you want to learn more about this topic, or if you have an interest in helping the translation effort of the LDS Church, please leave a comment.

Localized versus local

At what point does it make sense for an organization to create content locally rather than localize it from a central source?

There are a lot of problems with authorizing local offices to produce their own content. How do you preserve brand integrity? How to you ensure that locally produced content conveys your message accurately? At first glance it seems that you'll either have to trust local producers (scary) or require their work to circle back through worldwide headquarters for approval (inefficient).

I ran into this problem during graduate school when a group of students and I began tweeting on behalf of the school (from official Twitter accounts). The desire was to produce social media content in the languages of prospective students. What better way to do so than for current students from those target countries to compose original tweets in their respective languages? The effort proved very successful in the end, but there were multiple meetings about the implications of publishing student produced content in languages the professional PR staff couldn't read and review. Legitimate concerns had to be assuaged.

The problem compounds as you add locales. Consider the organization for which I currently work, +The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Headquarters are located in Utah, USA, and over the years most of our publishing resources have naturally built up here. For a long time, that worked. But now the Church has members spread across the globe, and most live outside of the United States. The Church has published in 177 languages.

Clearly, making materials available in so many languages represents a massive effort. Especially considering that most of those materials (if not all of them) originated in English. But we localizers know that translating that material is only one part of the picture. What about the fact that a significant portion of Church media is published in video format? Even a video with the most impeccable subtitles or the most convincing voice over will spur cognitive dissonance in a Kenyan viewer if the video looks like it was shot in a Northern Utah suburb. At this point we are dealing with differences in culture, values, and even socioeconomic status.

The good news is that our publishing department understands many of these challenges. The results of efforts to produce content that will resonate with people in their own country and culture are beginning to appear in videos like this one that features families from Brazil, England, and the United States.

We have a long way to go, but we are on the right track. What is my dream as a localizer? I'd love to see videos and other materials produced in our area offices by talented folks who live in those areas. I am blown away by the powerful messages our centralized production teams create. They are incredibly impactful, especially for English speaking Americans. I look forward to a time when messages of equal power are built specifically to touch the minds and hearts of people in their native language and culture.

Why I love working for a big organization

Many of my friends are lucky enough (and talented enough) to be working for small companies in the tech industry. I love hearing them talk about the way their business can pivot. I love the flexibility and quick change that often come with working in such an environment. I also love the casual culture that permeates companies rife with the "start up" feel.

I work in a monstrous bureaucracy, which in so many ways represents the opposite of all that.

And I love it.

The big picture - I work for a publishing services department. This means that everything from content creation to printing, web publishing, video production, and translation all happen under one umbrella. My mind deals well with the big picture, often better than with analyzing details. I enjoy working alongside creative people who make awesome content. I enjoy seeing the process from start to finish. Most of all, I love the opportunity to learn from people in different, but related fields. I get to spend some of my office time at a motion picture studio, for example. That's awesome.

Mentorship - Extraordinary individuals work in organizations of all sizes. What sets a large organization apart is the sheer number of experienced professionals who surround me at all times. I graduated from my school program about a year and a half ago, which means that virtually all of my coworkers have much more experience than I do. Veteran localizer? Across the hall. Veteran designer? Third door on the left. Veteran project manager? One floor up. Veteran [fill in the blank]? Somewhere near. The wells of wisdom in a big organization are plentiful and deep.

Clout - As a brand new professional, this was perhaps the most surprising aspect of working for a large, established organization. When people find out where I work, it lends me a measure of credibility I would not otherwise enjoy. Whether that is warranted is another question, but it is a real thing. I've felt it at conferences and chatting with vendors, among other places. This comes with a responsibility to represent the organization the very best I can.