Google Translate Languages
FILE - A student colors in a fox during during Quechua Indigenous language class focusing on animal names at a public primary school in Licapa, Peru, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. About 10 million people speak Quechua, but trying to automatically translate emails and text messages into the most widely spoken Indigenous language family in the Americas was nearly impossible before Google introduced it into its digital translation service Wednesday, May 11, 2022. The internet giant says new artificial intelligence technology is enabling it to vastly expand Google Translate’s repertoire of the world’s languages, adding 24 more this week including Quechua and other Indigenous South American languages such as Guarani and Aymara. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)

Google gets more multilingual, but will it get the nuance?


About 10 million people speak Quechua, but trying to automatically translate emails and text messages into the most widely spoken Indigenous language family in the Americas was long all but impossible.

That changed on Wednesday, when Google added Quechua and a variety of other languages to its digital translation service.

The internet giant says new artificial intelligence technology is enabling it to vastly expand Google Translate’s repertoire of the world’s languages. It added 24 of them this week, including Quechua and other Indigenous South American languages such as Guarani and Aymara. It is also adding a number of widely spoken African and South Asian languages that have been missing from popular tech products.

“We looked at languages with very large, underserved populations," Google research scientist Isaac Caswell told reporters.

The news from the California company’s annual I/O technology showcase may be celebrated in many corners of the world. But it will also likely draw criticism from those frustrated by previous tech products that failed to understand the nuances of their language or culture.

Quechua was the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile. Its status began to decline following the Spanish conquest of Peru more than 400 years ago.

Adding it to the languages recognized by Google is a big victory for Quechua language activists like Luis Illaccanqui, a Peruvian who created the website Qichwa 2.0, which includes dictionaries and resources for learning the language.

“It will help put Quechua and Spanish on the same status,” said Illaccanqui, who was not involved in Google's project.

Illaccanqui, whose last name in Quechua means “you are the lightning bolt,” said the translator will also help keep the language alive with a new generation of young people and teenagers, “who speak Quechua and Spanish at the same time and are fascinated by social networks.”

Caswell called the news a “very big technological step forward" because until recently, it was not possible to add languages if researchers couldn't find a big enough trove of online text — such as digital books, newspapers or social media posts — for their AI systems to learn from.

U.S. tech giants don’t have a great track record of making their language technology work well outside the wealthiest markets, a problem that’s also made it harder for them to detect dangerous misinformation on their platforms. Until this week, Google Translate was offered in European languages like Frisian, Maltese, Icelandic and Corsican — each with fewer than 1 million speakers — but not East African languages like Oromo and Tigrinya, which have millions of speakers.

The new languages will roll out this week. They won't yet be understood by Google's voice assistant, which limits them to text-to-text translations for now. Google said it is working on adding speech recognition and other capabilities, such as being able to translate a sign by pointing a camera at it.

That will be important for largely spoken languages like Quechua, especially in the health field, because many Peruvian doctors and nurses who only speak Spanish work in rural areas and “are unable to understand patients who speak mostly Quechua,” Illaccanqui said.

“The next frontier, or challenge, is to work on speech,” said Arturo Oncevay, a Peruvian machine translation researcher at the University of Edinburgh who co-founded a research coalition to improve Indigenous language technology across the Americas. “The native languages of the Americas are traditionally oral."

In its announcement, Google cautioned that the quality of translations in the newly added languages “still lags far behind" other languages it supports, such as English, Spanish and German, and noted that the models “will make mistakes and exhibit their own biases." But the company only added languages if its AI systems met a certain threshold of proficiency, Caswell said.

“If there’s a significant number of cases where it’s very wrong, then we would not include it," he said. “Even if 90% of the translations are perfect, but 10% are nonsense, that’s a little bit too much for us."

Google said its products now support 133 languages. The latest 24 are the largest single batch to be added since Google incorporated 16 new languages in 2010. What made the expansion possible is what Google is calling a “zero-shot” or “zero-resource” machine translation model — one that learns to translate into another language without ever seeing an example of it.

Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta introduced a similar concept called the Universal Speech Translator last year.

Google's model works by training a “single gigantic neural AI model” on about 100 data-rich languages, and then applying what it's learned to hundreds of other languages it doesn't know, Caswell said. “Imagine if you’re some big polyglot and then you just start reading novels in another language, you can start to piece together what it could mean based on your knowledge of language in general,” he said.

He said the new group ranges from smaller languages like Mizo, spoken in northeastern India by about 800,000 people, to more widely spoken languages like Lingala, spoken by around 45 million people across Central Africa.

It was more than 15 years ago — in 2006 — that Microsoft got some positive attention in South America with a software feature translating familiar Microsoft menus and commands into Quechua. But that was before the current wave of AI advancements in real-time translation.

Harvard University language scholar Américo Mendoza-Mori, who speaks Quechua, said getting Google's attention brings some needed visibility to the language in places like Peru, where Quechua speakers are still lacking in many public services. The survival of many of these languages “will depend on their use in digital contexts,” he said.

Another language scholar, Roberto Zariquiey, said he's skeptical that Google could make an effective language revitalization tool for Quechua, Aymara or Guarani without closer participation from community groups in the region.

“Languages are deeply linked to lives, to cultures, to ethnic groups and political organizations,” said Zariquiey, a linguist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. “This should be taken into account.”


The new languages added are: Assamese, Aymara, Bambara, Bhojpuri, Dhivehi, Dogri, Ewe, Guarani, Ilocano, Konkani, Krio, Lingala, Luganda, Maithili, Meiteilon (Manipuri), Mizo, Oromo, Quechua, Sanskrit, Sepedi, Sorani Kurdish, Tigrinya, Tsonga and Twi.

© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I was at a bar in Sapporo many years ago and the miso soup was so delicious that I asked Mama what the secret was. "Ago dashi," she explained. I knew what dashi was, a broth or powder used in flavouring, but I didn't know what ago was.

When I looked it up on the internet, I found a page about ago dashi, but couldn't read it easily because it was in Japanese. So, I clicked on Google translate. Ago, by the way, is a flying fish. But when I saw the Google translation for ago dashi, it was "The jaw, it comes out!"

I have the same question as the headline, "Will it get the nuance?"

Probably not, because it's too far onto the machine side, a much better application, way over on the human side, is deepl. You input natural English and you get natural Japanese and vice versa.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Same here: put any Japanese (or other language) whether serious or trivial through Google Translate and have a laugh at the result.

I do use GT to translate a text more to have all the words translated (which I then correct / re-organize) than a meaningful text.

A few years ago, there was that small handheld sound translation device that Kitano (Takeshi) did some advertising for which and which was supposed to translate so many languages to and from Japanese.

As I know French, German, English, some Spanish and Japanese did I run a back / forth trial run on all languages. The results were less than stellar.

We're still a years away from Star Trek-like translation devices, me thinks.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

'Nuance' is not 'language', per se. It is more 'cultural perception', a sort of 'meta-language', and even native speakers of a language can be blind to 'nuances' of the words they use as any good propagandist knows. The consistently correct interpretation of 'nuance' will have to await a 'Turing Test' perfect AI who has 'lived' among the culture for a which time Human translators will have become 'obsolete' and simultaneous translation headphones or earbuds a common appliance for travelers and media aficionados alike...and maybe not so far into the future...will this help us to finally become 'Humanity' rather than the many competing 'versions' of Humanity we are now? One can only hope...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Out of the languages added 8 are Indian languages apart from Dhivehi, the language of Maldives.

What is surprising here is that it took so long for Google to add Sanskrit, which even though a dead language, is considered to be a natural language closest to a programming language with its rigid syntax and strict rules of sentence formation.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@William Bjornson

Nuance' is not 'language', per se. It is more 'cultural perception', a sort of 'meta-language', and even native speakers of a language can be blind to 'nuances' of the words they use

Very true, but at the same time is nuance an inherent part of human language and communication.

For example:

そうですか?"Is that so?" becoming "Your BS'ing me" if you put the intonation on か or make it a かあ. As this does not "translate" well in a written context or that readers could (for obvious reasons in case of a written text) not "read" the underlying meaning we ended up piling up Emojis.

Other example: sarcasm or certain forms of humor or innuendoes, regional idioms, single words which from one country or regions have slightly (or sometimes very) different meanings. Spanish speakers may need to clarify what they are saying if from different regions in Spain, not mentioning Spanish speakers from Spain vs Latin America or French speakers from France vs Canada, Belgium or Swiss.

Language is also dynamic and expressions are trending as rapidly as they are dying out, but if some people still refer to them they may end up "forgotten" by the translation device. Remember the nikushoku joshi (carnivorous females) and soushoku danshi (herbivorous males) craze from over a decade ago? Two weeks ago I heard the expression again. I didn't hear it for over a decade or so but it seems some still refer to it...

Some forms of languages may be very abstract, like poetry or prose. Older forms of communications may also be very abstract like runes or hieroglyphs.

Language and communication is one of the most specific characteristics of a species. Humans made it more difficult than animals by adding culture, history and complex human feelings to the problem. Covering everything (even if only in an imperfect fashion) will take a lot of time despite computer calculation rate growing exponentially, me thinks. It would also remain a constant work-in-progress as well, this as we (and our languages and methods of communication) still continue to evolve day-by-day.

Somehow, it is also somewhat reassuring that there are still areas or fields, "human" ones, out there that the machines can not take over...yet.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Well...Google cant translate Japanese correctly yet so.. nothing to get too exited about

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Google has gotten a lot better at Japanese. It used to be that if you took a short story for children, translated it into English from Japanese, and then translated it back again, you would have zero idea what the story was about. Now it still needs work, but it's better. But isn't there yet.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Google’s translation of Japanese-English is quite poor; DeepL blows google away in accuracy and nuance.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"Google Debuts Smart Glasses Built With Real-Time Language Translation"

The device basically brings Google Translate to a pair of smart glasses by displaying the translated text over the lenses.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is a little late but is the perfect example of 'nuance' versus 'meaning' which I had forgotten to include in my comment above. Not too long ago, an American crook by the name of Pence said of the U.S. on Twitter, "Patriotic education has been replaced with political indoctrination." The two phrases, 'political indoctrination' and 'patriotic education' are, technically, identical in 'meaning'. But, for the nonthinking mind, are very different in 'nuance'. Again, the art of the propagandist or marketeer...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sorry Google, but nature beat you to it:

Seriously speaking though, apart from sharing a classic bit of British humor, ... a word of caution - relying totally upon machine translation, could end up in tears.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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