Online tool boosts productivity of translators

January 27, 2012— Ottawa, Ontario

The National Research Council of Canada has produced a translation tool that is estimated to save the Canadian translation industry millions of dollars each year. WeBiText, which has been licensed by NRC to Montréal-based Terminotix Inc., allows translators to rapidly search online for previously translated terms and expressions to locate the most suitable ones for their current work. 

The easy-to-use tool saves translators countless minutes each day that they would otherwise lose looking for “equivalencies” for technical words or expressions. “We knew the change in technology would be immediately useful,” says Alain Désilets, an NRC researcher in Ottawa. That’s because Désilets’ team knew what the translators really needed. 

WeBiText allows translators to rapidly search online for previously translated terms and expressions.

In the spring of 2007, Désilets — along with partners from the Université du Québec en Outaouais (Louise Brunette, Christianne Melançon and Geneviève Patenaude) — began observing professional translators working at several industrial sites in Canada and Europe. They found that translators spend up to 10 minutes looking for comparable usages of words on a host of different websites. This process can be slow and frustrating, and also relies on translators’ specific knowledge of the best sites for “equivalencies” within their fields. 

Rapid access to web pages

The idea behind WeBiText, which facilitates rapid access to 10 million web pages from the Government of Canada and other sites, was to automate the search for equivalent words or expressions, says Désilets. "We knew this tool would fit like a glove."

The NRC initiative supports the federal government’s Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013, which promotes its official languages strategy. But because WeBiText enables users to launch inquiries in 30 languages — and undoubtedly more in future — it goes far beyond its original goal. The tool, which includes languages such as Inuktitut, Creole and Lithuanian, receives about 10,000 queries a day from 1,000 users. It can easily be customized to fit the specific needs of translators as well. 

Using professional translator cost information and the usage numbers above, NRC estimates that WeBiText already saves the Canadian translation industry about $3.3 million a year in terms of work time. Those savings are expected to grow when more translators learn about this tool. Translators, writers, terminologists and editors who need to edit or write in more than one language can also use WeBiText for a modest annual subscription price. 

Export potential

WeBiText can be used outside Canada since it supports an exhaustive list of languages, adds Jean-François Richard, president of Terminotix. It therefore has significant export potential for the company. 

According to NRC business development officer Michel Mellinger, who helped to commercialize the technology, the idea for WeBiText was simple but making it work was not. He is delighted that NRC created a commercial-ready product within a relatively short period of time. 

“The increase in productivity and job satisfaction for translators using the service is already significant,” says Mellinger. “Translators wish to craft a good translation and this provides them with a valuable tool to produce a quality product by freeing some of their time for what they do best.” 

WeBiText works especially well on certain websites, such as the Government of Canada’s, where all content is available in both official languages, and links between English and French pages follow a consistent pattern. However, the quality of web content varies from language to language depending on the availability of source material. For example, the massive Haiti earthquake in 2010 triggered a search for English-Creole websites to enable more accurate translations for international emergency response teams. Relatively few such sites were found by the WeBiText team. 

Inuktitut to English translations

NRC researchers had better success with languages such as Spanish, German and, surprisingly, Welsh. The system also works for Inuktitut, thanks to the work of NRC’s Benoit Farley, who has built several search tools for that language. This is an important aspect of the project because previously, translators lacked tools to help them in their Inuktitut-English work. Inuktitut is available on WeBiText in syllabic or Latin alphabet forms. 

Translators and technology people don’t always speak the same language, notes Désilets, who has been researching language technologies, such as speech recognition, since 1995. “Fortunately, my team (which also includes Marta Stojanovic) understands translators, which puts us in a unique position to build tools that they will like and adopt readily.” 

Désilets calls WeBiText a success for NRC’s initiative to support the federal government’s Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013, and hopes his team can produce another translation tool in three to five years. Their next product may be designed to help interpreters, who need to translate in real time — often in stressful situations. 

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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