Machine translation is typically trained on bilingual data that can be found on the Internet. It mostly comes from international government and non-government organizations, commercial web presentations, books, movie subtitles, etc. Therefore, most of the text is quite formal and almost without typos and certainly without emojis. The more you sound like an EU institution, the better is the translation you get. Once you start using weird CAPITALIZATION, add emojis 😃😵😂 and occasionally do a typo, the translation system gets usually lost.

One of the competition tasks (so-called shared tasks) at this year WMT Conference (Conference on Machine Translation that gets abbreviated as WMT it used to be a workshop) was translation of Reddit posts. The organizers let professional translators translate several hundreds of Reddit posts between French and English and between English and Japanese and asked the translators to preserve all the weird stuff as closely as possible (poor translators doing this weird job). Some posts were left for training or fine-tuning of the systems, some for testing. Organizers published the data and competing teams sent their translations. Findings of the competition were out almost four weeks before the actual conference.

Half-a-dozen teams submitted their systems to the competition and the results are actually pretty good. It almost seems that if you are careful enough, the translation system can be similarly good when translating Reddit posts and standard texts.

What did the teams do to make their systems work well on the Reddit data?

  1. Data augmentation with back-translation. One thing that makes the Reddit posts different from standard text is capitalization and non-standard splitting of the words (with hyphens or spaces). At training time, all of these can be simulated on the target side. For the modified sentences, you can generate a synthetic source sentence and use it as additional training data.

  2. Placeholders for emojis. Emojis and ASCII art do not get translated, they are just the same in the source sentence and in the target sentence. There is plenty of different emojis and for each of them, the system needs to learn to copy it to the target sentence. If we replace all of them by the same placeholder symbols, the system will learn to copy the placeholders. In a post-processing step, the placeholders are one-by-one replaced with the strings from the source sentence.

  3. Fine-tuning. If you have a few hundreds of examples of how the actual data will look like, you can use it to fine-tune a system that was trained on large data. If you are careful, it will not even hurt the performance on the standard texts.

It seems to me from the findings of the shared task show that making a translation system robust enough to work on Reddit posts is actually quite easy (maybe easier than the organizers expected, but certainly than I expected), which is certainly a pleasant surprise. If there is a competition next year, I hope the data will be much noisier to keep the task interesting.

BibTeX Reference

    title = "Findings of the First Shared Task on Machine Translation Robustness",
    author = "Li, Xian  and
      Michel, Paul  and
      Anastasopoulos, Antonios  and
      Belinkov, Yonatan  and
      Durrani, Nadir  and
      Firat, Orhan  and
      Koehn, Philipp  and
      Neubig, Graham  and
      Pino, Juan  and
      Sajjad, Hassan",
    booktitle = "Proceedings of the Fourth Conference on Machine Translation (Volume 2: Shared Task Papers, Day 1)",
    month = aug,
    year = "2019",
    address = "Florence, Italy",
    publisher = "Association for Computational Linguistics",
    url = "",
    doi = "10.18653/v1/W19-5303",
    pages = "91--102",

    title = "{MTNT}: A Testbed for Machine Translation of Noisy Text",
    author = "Michel, Paul  and
      Neubig, Graham",
    booktitle = "Proceedings of the 2018 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing",
    month = oct # "-" # nov,
    year = "2018",
    address = "Brussels, Belgium",
    publisher = "Association for Computational Linguistics",
    url = "",
    doi = "10.18653/v1/D18-1050",
    pages = "543--553",