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Machine translation

The Commission has had a long standing interest in machine translation as one of the ways in which the burden of translation might be alleviated. SYSTRAN was first introduced in the mid-1970's, and has been continually developed ever since, a number of other commercial systems have been evaluated on Commission premisses, and direct support for work on machine translation through the funding of research and development projects such as EUROTRA has been given.

Gradually the perception of the appropriate role to be played by machine translation has shifted. In the mid-1970's, both inside and outside the Commission, it was primarily seen as a tool to be used by translators. More recently, the language engineering community as a whole has come to see machine translation as a parallel translation activity, which may substitute for high quality human translation in those circumstances where lower quality material may be acceptable - for information gathering, for example, or as the basis for routing a document towards the most appropriate person to deal with it. Inside the Commission, the choice of what languages should be dealt with by machine translation has also changed. In the early days, it was thought appropriate to concentrate on the languages which serve as major communication languages within the Commission. More recent policy is to concentrate on developing translation from the less disseminated languages into the three major communication languages. Most officials are multilingual, and have a good knowledge of at least one of the three major communication languages. Machine translation from the lesser known languages facilitates access to material which otherwise would have to go through the translation services, perhaps, in the end, unnecessarily.

In line with these shifts in perception, we have already noted that officials outside the SdT can have free access to SYSTRAN translation by e-mail, and may request either the raw translation or a translation rapidly pre-edited, but not a fully polished translation.

In practice, then, SYSTRAN is used mainly by officials outside the SdT, although the latter is still, with 25, the largest single user, and although an increasing number of translators do use SYSTRAN raw translation as a basis for their work.

When requests for SYSTRAN translation come from officials outside the SdT, the texts do not pass through the SdT at all, and are therefore not germane to the present part of the discussion except in so far as they relieve the SdT of part of its burden. In this context, we should note that one Department Head reported that when his group was heavily overloaded, he replied to some requests with a suggestion that the requester should submit the document to SYSTRAN.


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