Digital Life (The Computer Times), 7 December 2004
Spread the word
Mr Tan Dan Feng, executive director for high-tech translation firm GistXL wants to remove language barriers with the most accurate and comprehensive mobile translation system in the world.
FOR 14 years, Mr Tan worked as a human translator in his family firm, Interlexis, to help make sense between the English-Mandarin camps.
Today, Mr Tan, who is effectively bilingual, gets machines in on the act. And he has developed the Gist Mobile Translator System to get more people talking to one another. The 35-year-old also owns GistXL, the firm distributing the system.
By the end of next year, he expects the system to go regional, providing the bridge for languages including Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaysia, Arabic, Japanese and Korean.
The English and Mandarin services were launched with SingTel earlier this year. A pay-as-you-use service, a SingTel subscriber can forward an English text message to the system and get it back translated in Mandarin, for example.
Apart from business and travel-related communication, much of today's translation traffic comes from cross-cultural social exchanges.
Mr Tan said: "We didn't expect this, but I think there are a lot of cross-border, cross-language romances happening.''
It's not that the users' SMS text messages are tapped since no phone numbers are seen, just text, the sociology graduate from the University of Western Ontario, hastened to add.
"All data is automatically made anonymous before it's processed so as to ensure the privacy of the users,'' he said.
Translation logs are periodically processed by linguists to update Gist's database. The system picks up words and phrases, especially colloquial ones. This is so the database can be updated weekly and made more precise, translating the quirky to coherent.
This means even Singlish can be understood as English or Mandarin by non-Singaporeans.
There are many online language translation services, mostly free, and machine-based translation, such as those offered on Netat.net, Google.com, or babelfish.altavista.com.
But GistXL is one of the first in the world to use sophisticated mathematical methods to draw accurate links and contexts between words and phrases.
GistXL earned a merit award at the National Infocomm Awards in October for its cutting-edge machine translator.
Q: Won't technology clash with your traditional human translation business?
A: Human translators tend to be very sceptical about machines because of the inaccuracies most systems have today. But what we're doing is using our expertise as translators to create a better system that can capture all the nuances in human communication. It won't eat into the traditional business but may spur greater use of people to translate for cross-language exchanges.
Q: How exactly is your system better?
A: While some systems take two sets of dictionaries and match words, we've added a bit of intelligence to it with an engine that uses a statistical component to analyse sentences and phrases. Within a fifth of a second, a phrase like "I wan 2 c 2day paper'' can be translated to Mandarin "wo yao kan jin ri de bao zhi''.
Human communication is not bound by rules - true, there are grammatical rules - but there are many variations in the way people speak, just like how Singaporeans speak Singlish. We want to put the power of translation at the fingertips of every mobile phone user. There is clearly a need that's not filled.
Q: Where do you see the need coming from?
A: Back in 1999, we had customers asking for automated translation services, something that's instant and cheaper. Early user surveys showed users using the Gist service for business or travel-related communications. But lately, more use it for socialising. In fact, some use it daily to have long "conversations'' with friends who do not speak the same language. This system allows islands of community to interact with one another. Beyond the economic, I see a social value in Gist.
Q: Aside from the mobile phone platform, how else do you intend for people to access Gist in the future?
A: We developed and own the underlying core translation technology that powers GMTS which just happens to be the first application that we have launched on this platform. We already have Internet and intranet versions of the product and we are now working on other delivery channels with several major global companies.However, in the short term, we will be focusing on maintaining our position as the most accurate and comprehensive mobile translation system in the world.
Q: If this takes off, you are going to be very rich! Are you considering early retirement?
A: As machine translation gradually becomes an accepted and ubiquitous part of all our lives, I think that the satisfaction of having played a part in developing this new generation of translation systems will outweigh any financial reward. I've been very lucky to have had the chance to be involved in something that's intellectually challenging, financially promising and has the potential to make the world a better place.
Removing the language barrier can lead to a greater degree of mutual understanding between countries and cultures - something that the world can definitely do with right now.