Start-up teaches foreign languages, translates the Web

A new start-up attempts to crowdsource the translation industry by teaching users foreign languages while translating websites at the same time.

A new language learning website is hoping to provide its patrons with more than just a chance to brush up on their Spanish. Users of the site Duolingo will also take part in a massive effort to translate the mess of languages floating around on the Web.

The latest project from Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn, Duolingo attempts to teach users foreign languages while simultaneously using their newly acquired skills to translate websites and other corporate assignments. While the site has been available by invitation for the last five months, the startup debuted to the public on Tuesday.

According to von Ahn, Duolingo’s fleet of human translators will be able to decode intricacies of language like satire, sarcasm and irony — things that machines can’t always compute.

The New York Times reports:

Google Translate, by contrast, relies entirely on machines to do the work — and while it usually captures the essence of a piece of text, it can sometimes produce bewildering passages. Google leverages vast amounts of data to produce its output, feeding its translation engine with texts that have been translated into multiple languages, including United Nations proceedings, which are then used to train its machines.

Mr. von Ahn, by contrast, is leveraging what he hopes will be crowds flocking to Duolingo for free language lessons.

Duolingo starts by giving users sentences to translate based on their individual skill levels. If the user doesn’t know a particular word, he or she can hover over it until its definition is provided. As more knowledge is gained, the sentences in need of translation become increasingly difficult. To ensure that no nonsensical phrases make it onto any translated pages, each sentence is translated by multiple learners and users can vote on which translation is the best.

Both individuals and companies can submit their content to Duolingo for translation. The site can also obtain content from any text released under a Creative Commons license or that is not under copyright. While the process is currently completely free, von Ahn tells the New York Times that he intends to charge companies for translation services in the future. For users, however, the language lessons will always be free.

“You’re learning a language and at the same time, helping to translate the Web,” von Ahn told the Times. “You’re learning by doing.”

A Start-Up Bets on Human Translation Over Machines [NYT]

Image, Video: Duolingo

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