Transcribe and translate tool could help foreign students follow lectures

A new computer system that automatically transcribes lectures and translates them into English is being tested at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, or KIT, in southwest Germany.

It could benefit foreign students who have difficulty following lectures and other students who have struggled to take notes, as the scripts are stored in ‘clouds’ and can be called up when needed.

With the KIT tool, translations of lectures are streamed live on the internet, and students need no special software to read them on their computer screens. They can also view English versions of PowerPoint presentations.

The translating tool was developed at KIT’s Institute of Anthropomatics. This branch of science, studying symbiosis between human and humanoid, was actually created in Karlsruhe and seeks ways to compile people-friendly systems with informatics in human-centred environments.

Alexander Waibel – a professor of computer science at KIT and at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States – and his team have been working on the translator for 20 years.

It is now being tested in four KIT lectures, but the aim is to make the tool available to all subject areas at the institution, and have translations into other languages.

But all of this could prove difficult. “Pure language translating is easy,” says Waibel, “but translation based on comprehension is very difficult.”

A number of problems arise regarding aspects like sentences spoken without pauses in between, or correctly structuring sentences without having commas or other punctuation given.

The German language itself presents special difficulties. “The verb is always at the end of a sentence,” explains Waibel. “And then there are endlessly long composite words.”

The first live demonstration proved quite useful, although, for example, the German sentence “Darüber braucht man sich keine Sorgen zu machen” was turned into “Don’t worry about make” – slightly off the mark.

Another problem is recognising mathematical formulae and representing them as such rather than as a string of words, for example a + b instead of ‘a plus b’.

KIT President Horst Hippler sees the new translating tool as a milestone, maintaining that “after all, researchers need a uniform language to communicate with one another”. KIT is keen to increase its 16% share of international students, and the complicated German language is a deterrent to many.

Here, the new tool could be useful once it has been adapted to individual courses. It can also reckon with support via the European Union’s EU-Bridge project. The aim is to develop practically relevant language translating systems for TV news broadcasts or parliamentary debates. Further use is envisaged for handicapped people and also for industry.

The KIT was founded in 2009, as a merger of Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, formerly the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Centre, and the University of Karlsruhe. The latter won funding for two graduate schools in Germany’s Excellence Initiative competition, but was unable to boast an ‘excellence cluster’ and therefore lost its status as an ‘elite university’.