Preserving Mayan Language into the Next B’ak’tun
The best way to describe how I’m feeling is deeply honored and emotionally moved. This is the feeling I get every time we start a Microsoft Translator Hub project in language preservation or translation because it is always an honor and privilege to work on preserving a language. Whether it’s in Fresno, California, working to preserve Hmong, or in distant Dhulikhel, Nepal, working to provide translations for Nepali, the feeling’s the same—a visceral sense of making an impact. I can attest that this feeling is a distinct benefit of being a part of the Microsoft Research Connections team.
The last week of September, I visited the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo—or more accurately, I was warmly welcomed to these homelands of the Mayan people. Together with my colleagues Erick Stephens, director of technology at Microsoft Mexico, and Adrian Hernandez Becerril, a program manager at Microsoft Mexico, I came to the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo to finalize a project to preserve the Mayan language. Our visit marked the culmination of months-long discussions with the university and various government officials and was, in my opinion, a significant day on any calendar (more on calendars below).
The future of the Mayan language is uncertain. University president Francisco Javier Rosado-May said it best when we first spoke back in May at the 2012 Latin American Faculty Summit in Cancun: “If we do not do anything to stop it, Mayan will be extinct within two generations.” President Rosado-May is extremely motivated to turn the tide, to change the future of the Mayan language, and his enthusiasm is infectious. So we and our partners in Microsoft Mexico decided to sponsor a project at his university along with Assistant Professor Martin Esquivel-Pat, to enable Mayan to survive the present and leap into the next b’ak’tun (in other words, the next long cycle of the Mayan calendar).
For those of you who are concerned that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world this December 20, let me assure you, as my hosts in Quintana Roo assured me, this is simply the end of a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar developed by the Mayans—a timekeeper more accurate than our own Julian calendar, by the way. What the Mayans say is that this December 21, we will be starting the next b’ak’tun, and with that, we hope, an era where Mayan remains a viable language for generations to come.
On arrival at the university, we were greeted by Javier Díaz Carvajal, head of the Secretariat of Economic Development for Quintana Roo, who, on behalf of the governor, extended me the honor of being made an “adopted citizen” of Quintana Roo. Afterwards, we signed an agreement with the government and the university to work on developing a Mayan language translation system that is solely built by the community and shared only when they decide to do so. And that is the real benefit of the Microsoft Translator Hub: it places the power of developing automatic translation models into the hands of the community where it belongs.
For the remainder of the day and the one that followed, we gave presentations and trained our hosts, professional translators, and students at the university on using the Microsoft Translator system, both through the Hub interface (which any bilingual person can use with a little training) and programmatically (which requires some technical knowledge). The latter is significant, as the university is looking to establish a computer and information science program, and this programmatic work with the Microsoft Translator Hub can help them build expertise in this area. My colleagues and I wanted to assist them in this endeavor in every way possible.
But back to building the language translation system. Microsoft Translator Hub makes the process easy, but it still takes time and commitment from the community—it doesn’t just happen overnight. It took our partners at California State University of Fresno and the Hmong Language Partners more than seven months to collect and add enough parallel data (between Hmong and English), upload it to the system, train, build, and release the Hmong translator.
We got a preview of how the Mayan translation system might work at a workshop we ran in Quintana Roo—which focused largely on building a translator system between Spanish and Yucatec (a local Mayan dialect). Participants employed another distinguishing feature of the Microsoft Translator Hub that enables you to build translation systems directly between any two languages instead of pivoting (and propagating errors) through English. How long it will take to build a functional Mayan translator is unknown right now, but I know the community is very motivated to get it done early in the next b’ak’tun!
I believe it is vital to future of the human race that we remember and preserve our past. My colleagues and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to play even a small part in making that happen.
—Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interactions Team, Microsoft Research Connections