July 17, 1998 Spanish-speaking television viewers in Central and South America will soon be able to watch and understand their favorite U.S. sitcom or soap opera thanks to software developed by two Simon Fraser University researchers.
And tourists going to Mexico, or points further south, may eventually hold the solution to the language barrier in the palm of their hands.
SFU linguist Paul McFetridge and computer scientist Fred Popowich have done what most computer textbooks describe as impossible. They have developed software that translates the English closed captions included with TV and video signals originally intended for the deaf, into Spanish in real time for display as subtitles.
"Any introductory machine-language textbook will say it's impossible, that it can't be done," says McFetridge. "But we have developed an application where the translation doesn't have to work perfectly."
McFetridge worked with Popowich, in collaboration with TCC Communications Corp. of Victoria, B.C., to develop the software for the burgeoning Central and South American market. Over the past several years, U.S. satellites have aimed television programming at South America, but, for programs like soap operas and sitcoms, it is too expensive to create Spanish subtitles manually the way movie-makers do.
What distinguishes this software from other translation programs is its ability to handle every day conversation. "Most other software is designed for a specific use," McFetridge explains. "For example a Japanese electronics manufacturer may want to translate a VCR manual. What distinguishes this software from any other product or research is that it can translate unlimited discourse."
He says that the secret to its success is its accuracy rate. Marketing studies show that unilingual Spanish speakers can't distinguish between 85 per cent accuracy and 100 per cent. The software developed by McFetridge and Popowich is more than 80 per cent accurate.
"A person watching a movie has more context than just subtitles -- like visuals and story continuity -- so if the text doesn't quite make sense, they can still follow the story," McFetridge explains.
The two SFU professors are also working on other applications for the software. They believe it can be used in the next, more powerful generation of hand-held, palm-top computers by setting it up for tourists visiting Spanish-speaking countries. A tourist, by speaking into the computer, would ask specific questions such as a request for food or a hotel room and the computer would translate and "speak" the request in Spanish.
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