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How To Chat Online Across Language Barriers

With the Google Translate API no longer free, Lionbridge pushes realtime, customizable machine translation for online chat.
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Lionbridge wants to help you speak your customer's language, online and instantly.

Lionbridge Technologies's GeoFluent is a customizable cloud service based on IBM machine translation technology that plugs into online chat systems for customer sales, service, and support, starting with LivePerson. GeoFluent also integrates with IBM's Sametime for enterprise communications. Supported languages include French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

"Most U.S. customers do roughly half their business worldwide," said Saul Marcus, senior product manager for GeoFluent, but those who do business online risk dropping sales when not everyone involved speaks English. "Most studies show when you engage customers in chat, you can increase sales by 15% to 25%," he said. "But if you can't engage them in chat, that benefit will not apply."

Chat translation is not a new idea. The U.S. military uses Coalition Chat Line software to smooth communications with coalition partners whose officers speak different languages. Even when machine translation mangles some words or phrases, a chat session allows participants to ask for clarification and rephrase their messages into language the software can handle better.

SDL, another language technology powerhouse, offers a Chat Translator service for multilingual instant messaging, with a $5 per month consumer plan and several corporate plans.

Lionbridge wants to distinguish itself through customization of language models for specific industries, Marcus said. In tests conducted with Intel, Lionbridge says it was able to demonstrate a substantial improvement in language quality once the translation model was customized to the semiconductor industry. On a scale of 1 to 5, the quality score rose from 2.8 to 4.1, according to Lionbridge.

Lionbridge also sees a market opportunity now that the best known cloud translation service is no longer free. Google, which has invested heavily in machine translation technology to help it handle multilingual Web content, is shutting down free access to the translation application programming interface it had offered since 2008. Paid access to the Google Translate API was announced in August, after Google at first announced it would simply discontinue support for the Translate API.

Google Translate is still offered as a free consumer Web service, and chat translation is available from within Gmail. However, if you want to build custom applications on top of the Google Translate service, you now have to pay.

Marcus said GeoFluent occupies a different niche because it offers more customization and services as part of the package, rather than just an API. "Google is focused on developers, whereas we are focused on the enterprise, so it's an apple versus apple pie comparison," he said. But he said the development is significant because Google is recognizing "the tremendous value of machine translation" as a service companies are willing to pay for.

While there are other classes of translation software used to speed the work of professional translators, only machine translation technologies can provide instantaneous results, based on a statistical prediction of what words and phrases have been used as equivalents in past samples. Machine learning techniques continually refine the software's understanding of different languages.

Lionbridge is primarily in the business of translation services, providing contract professional translators to localize product documentation and marketing materials. Its technology division worked with IBM to commercialize the translation chat application, which was originally fielded within IBM to improve communications across its global workforce, Marcus said.

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