This article originally appeared in TAUS Review #3 in April 2015

Since the city of Tokyo was elected as the Host City of the Olympic Games in September 2013, Japan started undergoing a transformation in preparation of its leading role in the biggest international sporting event. If we could call the 64’ Olympic Games an opportunity for Tokyo to reshape its infrastructure and become Kenzo Tange’s visionary metropolis, then this decade marks the transformation to a global capital, the axis of international communication and multilingual dialogue.

Japan is often cited for its “insular culture and mindset”, as not many people show interest in foreign cultures and languages. That is why Tokyo remains one of the rare metropolises in the world, where “lost in translation” is more than a saying, a movie title, or a funny metaphor. For people who have visited Tokyo it soon becomes the way of life; the beauty and the pain of bare survival.

Roughly 2% of Japan’s population is foreign (and this figure includes large numbers of permanent residents who have been there for generations). Therefore even in urban areas people are rarely exposed to the influence of other cultures and languages. Foreign visitors are often surprised by the lack of information and access to genuine content in their language, which prevents them from having a flawless experience visiting the land of the rising sun.

The announcement of the Olympic city brought in a new breeze of awareness that it’s time (and the right opportunity) to change that. While the drills are tearing up buildings in the Mita area to make way for the new “Olympic” highway, the government, telcos, tech companies, translators and ladies preparing bento boxes (we’ll get to that later) drill their skills and look for opportunities to connect with foreign visitors who don’t speak a word of Japanese.

Innovation comes with eccentricity

In a recent conversation with Mr. Hiroki Kawano and his team from Honyaku Center Inc., an interesting observation about the Japanese translation environment was made. Mr. Kawano, who is the Deputy General Manager of Honyaku Center, as well as Editor in Chief of JFT’s (Japan Translation Federation) Japan Translation Journal, explained how Japanese people involved in translation business possess a certain amount of eccentricity.

Combining Japanese commitment to quality and process with unconventional interest in foreign cultures and overseas organizations’ workflows gives local translation industry room for individuality and an obligation to respond to recent global trends. Mr. Kawano pointed out that it is an absolute necessity for strong Japanese translation companies to start utilizing machine translation and other technological solutions. Leaving no room for conservative methods that have been proven to work well so far, the Japanese translation industry continues to attract eccentric individuals ready to disrupt rigid mainly sales-focused language service providers. Shifting focus to engineering and tech, introducing automation trend while the demand for instant and quality translation increases just before the Olympics, are in his opinion priorities.

Endorsement of translation technology

The Japanese government is endorsing these endeavors by investing in the deployment of multi-language machine translation systems in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. They are supporting the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), expecting the release of a flawless multilingual communication infrastructure/system before the big sporting event.

NICT released a free network-based smartphone translation application VoiceTra in 2010 already. This application displayed their research results of automatic multilingual speech translation technologies. Voice input processed by statistical model speech recognition system was transmitted to the multilingual speech translation server, conducting language translation and providing voice output using speech synthesis.

This project served as an incentive for further development of the application and the establishment of The Universal Speech Translation Advanced Research Consortium (U-STAR, part of The Asian Speech Translation Advanced Research), currently comprised of 30 institutes from 25 countries/regions. Their publicly released client application, ‘VoiceTra4U’ is a result of joint efforts of academia (University of Kyoto being the leading institution) and private companies, as well as an independent administrative agency under the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

VoiceTra4U is further developing their solutions that support travel conversations and target primarily foreign visitors, domestic medical institutions, railway operators and retailers – the ones who will need flawless communication during the Tokyo Olympic games most.

NICT as Japan’s leading natural language processing resource center plays a great role in development for companies with client-focused products that bridge the Japanese communication gap.

According to Dr. Ikuo Kitagishi, Manager of Machine Translation Research Project of Yahoo! JAPAN, NICT’s available corpus and tools present the most important basic step in any related process, especially for statistical machine translation that requires a huge amount of parallel translation corpus material. He expressed the difficulties in Japanese Machine Translation, since the lack of data and technical challenges of natural language processing such as tokenizer, named entity extractor and parser are amplified by talent and fund shortage, which often results in dropped projects and re-strategizing. In addition to these obstacles it might be difficult for companies to calculate return on investment of Japanese MT research and development. Dr. Kitagishi also affirmed that Japanese MT is on the right track with increasing governmental support and an active leadership of Dr. Isahara (Toyohashi University of Technology), Dr. Kurohashi (Kyoto University) and Dr. Tsujii (Tokyo University).

The latest Japanese initiative providing high performance voice and task recognition is Mirai Translate, which was formed in October 2014 as a joint venture of NTT DOCOMO, Systran and FueTrek, utilizing technology from NICT and their projects made in conjunction with NTT research labs. Dr. Minoru Etoh, the CEO & President of this high-performance engineering company, shared that if we asked him about his view of MT about a decade ago, he would have been skeptical about it. But nowadays with the availability of excellent hybrid systems between crowd-sourced human translation and MT, we are at the starting point of complete automation of our communication.

Mirai Translate’s strong engineering team develops B2B engines for companies who can utilize their technology for B2C clients. He expressed the inevitability of a trade-off between quality and speed, which is improving daily and resetting industry standards. Real-time MT is on Mirai Translate’s roadmap, and they certainly expect results before the 2020 Olympics. About their Olympic incentive, Dr. Etoh elaborated: “Everybody talks about the Olympic Games. But I am skeptical about any “hype word”. The Olympics are a good motivation for everyone to contribute their best work, but we need to truly utilize this hype. Positive sentiments towards this event will bring additional motivation, but we do our best to provide great language solutions regardless the hype.” Dr. Etoh also outlined the high demand for good quality corpus on the Japanese translation market, while they aim to achieve the world’s highest level of accuracy for machine translation.

NTT DOCOMO currently provides its Jspeak – Japanese translator app both for iOS and Android devices, based on Hanashite Hon’yaku, which was primarily helping Japanese speakers communicate abroad, while Jspeak application gave in to the trend, easing communication between foreign visitors and Japanese locals, suited for the upcoming needs of the Olympics.

Start-ups and restart-ups

Japanese crowd-sourced and/or machine translation start-ups are well aware of increasing demand of diverse translations. anydooR’s Conyac, Yaraku’s WorldJumper, Gengo and Wovn are established providers of fast and affordable solutions who are keen on taking an extra step and providing their customers with versatile services, suited to their needs.

Due to an increasing demand of language-related services, Conyac recently launched “Conyac Market”, a platform that enables users to easily find multilingual help on various projects within Conyac’s worldwide database of over 45K multilingual people. “Conyac Market” was launched last month and it is already conducting market research, subtitling, copywriting, post-editing and many other services. With an increasing interest in the market and the Olympic “hype”, the Conyac Team is ready to accept innovative orders and is ready to answer any language or culture related requirements.

In the meantime Pijin, a collaborative entity of a number of tech companies that started its path as a student venture, provided foreign visitors with a simple and clever solution for basic understanding of signs and printouts, the QR Translator. Scanning a QR code placed next to Japanese text, visitors can access translations of the content at various airports, department stores, convenience stores, museums, expos and other touristy areas. The CEO of Pijin, Kenji Takaoka, is aware that there are many more areas and venues across Japan that can benefit from such a wholesome solution.

What’s with the bento box ladies from the beginning of this article?

We finally got to that. After reviewing the companies, it is time to talk about the people who try to make an impact on their own. In the past few years many new smaller translation agencies opened their doors, providing specialized services for small businesses with big international dreams. An interesting example of such is cosmopolite, an idea of Sabrina Olivieri-Tozawa and Miki Sakae, Tokyoites with years of international experience in education, linguistics, cultural studies and interaction with students. They have been welcoming international students, organizing parties, cultural events and even preparing their bento boxes for their host “children”.

Knowing the cultural and linguistic barriers they decided to dedicate their expertise in one of the most important segments – culinary experiences in Japan. In addition to cooking classes, tours and gatherings, they offer menu translation for restaurants in the form of package translation deals that also take care of restaurants’ webpages, SEO, location on Google maps and full social media appearance. Full Olympic package – no less than that…

“Hello Japan. How do we communicate now?”

More important than plans and future predictions are facts and current circumstances. There is probably no better place to review current state of Japanese translation industry than at the fifth TAUS Executive Forum in Tokyo, which will take place on April 9-10 at Oracle Japan. Technology, crowdsourcing translation models, social platforms, advanced workflow systems, data sharing, evaluation metrics, cloud-based TM systems and role of MT will be discussed by industry professionals from Lionbridge, Yaraku, Microsoft, Nikon Precision, Moravia, Mirai Translate, Honyaku Center, Spoken Translation, ATR-TREK, NICT, Human Science, Crestec, TOIN, Microsoft, ISE, Gengo and Conyac. Register today to “Discover Tomorrow”.

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