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In the closing weeks of 2016, Google published an article that quietly sailed under most people’s radars.
Up until September of last year, Google Translate used phrase-based translation. It basically did the same thing you and I do when we look up key words and phrases in our Lonely Planet language guides. It’s effective enough, and blisteringly fast compared to awkwardly thumbing your way through a bunch of pages looking for the French equivalent of “please bring me all of your cheese and don’t stop until I fall over.” But it lacks nuance.
Phrase-based translation is a blunt instrument. It does the job well enough to get by. But mapping roughly equivalent words and phrases without an understanding of linguistic structures can only produce crude results.
This approach is also limited by the extent of an available vocabulary. Phrase-based translation has no capacity to make educated guesses at words it doesn’t recognize, and can’t learn from new input.
All that changed in September, when Google gave their translation tool a new engine: the Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT).
The short version is that Google Translate got smart. It developed the ability to learn from the people who used it. It learned how to make educated guesses about the content, tone, and meaning of phrases based on the context of other words and phrases around them. And it got creative: Google Translate invented its own language to help it translate more effectively.
Google developed a new language(or interlingua, as Google call it) because the software determined over time that this was the most efficient way to solve the problem of translation.