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Online translation tools changing lives

Martha Mendoza (via AP/ SMH) | April 8, 2013

The Smith women, from left, mother Niki Smith, GiGi, 3, Macy Jade, 7 and Guan Ya, 14, use Google Translate on the family laptop to "speak" with their new daughter, Guan Ya.

The Smith women, from left, mother Niki Smith, GiGi, 3, Macy Jade, 7 and Guan Ya, 14, use Google Translate on the family laptop to "speak" with their new daughter, Guan Ya. Photo: AP

You might use Google Translate to read a hard-to-find Manga comic book or to decipher an obscure recipe for authentic Polish blintzes. Or, like Phillip and Niki Smith in rural Mississippi, you could use it to rescue a Chinese orphan and fall in love at the same time.

Google is now doing a record billion translations on any given day, as much text as you'd find in 1 million books for everything from understanding school lunch menus to gathering national security intelligence. It translates in 65 languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish, and can be used on websites, with speech recognition and as an app on mobile phones even if there is no connection.

While the technology is exponentially evolving, Google's translation guru Franz Och's face lit up when he heard that the Smiths and their new daughter, 14-year-old Guan Ya, are settling into their new lives together this month communicating almost exclusively through Google Translate.

"All day long I look at algorithms, algorithms and algorithms," he said. "It is so rewarding to hear that it is touching lives."

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In the Smiths' case, it changed theirs forever.

The Smiths, who already have three children, first spotted Guan Ya less than a year ago when Niki Smith was looking at photos of hard to place orphans online, offering simple prayers for them one by one. With three children of her own, including a 3-year-old daughter adopted from China, she had no intention of adding to her family.

Then she saw Guan Ya.

"She was just our daughter," said Smith of that chance internet encounter nearly a year ago. "There was no doubt about it, from the first time we saw her on the internet."

There were seemingly impossible obstacles to adopting the girl. Firstly, Guan Ya was months away from turning 14, the age at which Chinese law would make her ineligible for adoption. Not only could Guan Ya not speak English, she didn't speak at all.

Guan Ya is deaf.

Undeterred, the Smiths scrambled through the paperwork and home studies that are inherent to international adoptions. With support from both Chinese and US authorities, they expedited the bureaucracy by running a flurry of emails and forms through online translators. And one day Niki Smith received an email from her daughter-to-be, an unintelligible jumble of Chinese characters.

 

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