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Microsoft Translator Blog

Ready to Reenergize: Community Unveiling of the Custom Mayan to Spanish Translation System

Special guest post from Microsoft Research Connections Director Kristin Tolle, who has been working with the Mayan community to enable them to preserve their language. Microsoft Translator Hub provides a means for communities and businesses to build custom language translation systems.

At X’Caret, the Mayan eco-archaeological park in Carmen Del playa, the Rector of the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo, Professor Francisco Rosado-May and I along with Governor of Quintara Roo, Roberto Borge Angulo, unveiled the custom Mayan to Spanish translation system to demonstrate it to the community on December 21st, 2012—a date that coincided with the end of the 13th b’ak’tun and the beginning of the 14th. A fitting beginning for the Mayan-Spanish translation system.

I mentioned what an honor it is in a Microsoft Research Connections blog to work with local communities to create new translation models. What is special about the Microsoft Translator Hub is that it enables this capability “at home” by putting the power of developing a translation system into the hands of the organizations that care about it the most—the communities themselves.

An organization’s small data can be combined with our big data for the major languages to aid in the training of a new system—keeping it in use for coming generations or as the Mayans say, b’ak’tun. This is incredibly important to culture and language preservation as Carlos Allende, Public Sector Director Microsoft México explains, “The Microsoft Translator Hub is Microsoft’s contribution to worldwide cultures. In Mexico we are proud that this incredible technology is displayed for celebrating the Mayan Katun for keeping this language alive and allowing the next generation to have access to this millenarian knowledge.”

It takes a great deal of effort to build a translation model between two languages. One of the features of the Microsoft Translator Hub is that one can do this directly—create a translation model between two languages without having to go through a “pivot” language (usually English). And this is what the local university, Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo, has set out to do; to translate from Mayan to Spanish and vice versa.

The process began in May of this year when the Rector of the University, Professor Francisco Rosado-May, met with us at the LATAM Faculty Summit held in Cancun to discuss how it might be possible for his institution to work on Yucatec, a local Mayan dialect, as well as other related languages.

“The Translator Hub by Microsoft is not only a powerful software that facilitates the proper communication between Maya and Spanish but it is also a very important tool to achieve one of the strategic goals of our university: to preserve and increase the use of Maya,” said Professor Rosado-May who went on to explain the significance of language preservation, “Language is the genetic code of any culture, by understanding and using a lot more Maya, we also understand better the mental processes that trigger the construction of knowledge. In the case of Maya, that means understanding how they created sophisticated knowledge such as the zero, astronomy, mathematics, etc. This is why my University and I appreciate so much what Microsoft is doing with the Translator Hub.”

What is being unveiled today is a result of the hard work of linguistics professor, Martin Equival-Pat, his students, local language experts and the support of the local government agencies and Microsoft Mexico. Through their work the university has been able to build a Spanish to Yucatec and Yucatec to Spanish translation system that is just the beginning. As Rosado-May goes on to elaborate, “I expect that the hub will play an important role for the years to come in positioning the Maya language in the global world. We might be witnessing something special for the Baktuns ahead of us and contributing to one of the most important dreams all over the world: live in peace by understanding each other better, and recognizing that different cultures and different languages are important for peace.”

Microsoft Mexico fully supports this project and is comitted to the Mayan society. As Juan Alberto González Esparza, General Director Microsoft México explains, “Think for a moment of a situation where a Spanish speaker and a Maya person communicate with one another in their own languages using a computer or a phone. This is the world that Microsoft has imagined and now this is a reality thanks the Microsoft Translator HUB-Maya; that brings to the new age the Mayan language with all its culture, meanings, stories and lifestyle that will be preserved and available to everyone worldwide. This is the way we are generating a real impact in vulnerable communities connecting people with the potential of our technology.”

As we entered into the 14th b’ak’tun on December 22nd energized and engaged; the possibilities for the impact of the Hub and the impact of language preservation throughout the world are limitless.

Kristin Tolle
Director, Natural User Interactions Team
Microsoft Research Connections