This week, I will have a look at a paper from this year’s EMNLP that got a lot of attention on Twitter this week. If there was an award for the most disturbing machine translation paper, this would be a good candidate. The title of the paper is On NMT Search Errors and Model Errors: Cat Got Your Tongue? and comes from the University of Cambridge.

Even though the authors do not put it this way, the paper critically revisits how neural machine translation is mathematically formulated and shows that the current formulation leads to absurd consequences.

The current mathematical formulation of NMT models can be summarized like this: Let’s factorize the sentence probability by tokens using the chain rule. This allows us to formulate the loss as a sum of negative log-likelihoods and we end up with a model that can estimate conditional probabilities of individual words. This is nice, but what we really want is to get an entire sequence of words that maximizes the probability estimate given the equation. This is not computationally tractable, so we have to approximate the inference using the beam search algorithm.

In more detail, the decoder in NMT models is a conditional language model: it estimates a probability distribution of a target sentence word given the source sentence and the previous words in the target sentence. Formally for target sentence $\mathbf{y}$ and source sentence $\mathbf{x}$:

When we factorize the equation word by words using the chain rule, we get:

This equation is just an application of rules from a high school probability class. It must work, one would say. The problem now is how to get a good sentence out of this model. As they notice in the paper, the number of possible sentences of length 20 is bigger than the number of atoms in the known universe and until this paper was published we believed the exact inference is not tractable. Therefore, we use approximations like greedy search or beam search.

The paper presents a feasible algorithm for doing the exact inference, i.e., finding the best scoring sequence given the equation above (without checking all atoms in the known universe). In the log domain, probabilities are negative numbers, multiplying probabilities then means adding negative numbers. When you expand a hypothesis during the search, its score only decreases, so you can always discard partial hypotheses that have a lower score than the best-scoring completed hypothesis and efficiently prune the search. Unfortunately, they did not report how long this inference took, but apparently it was a reasonable finite time, otherwise, they would not be able to report it in the paper.

Their surprising conclusion is that often, the globally best-scoring hypothesis is an empty string and the optimal translation given the trained model gets around 2 BLEU points (compared to 30 BLUE points of the beam search). Both greedy and beam search do most of the search decisions “incorrectly”, meaning that they select a different symbol than would otherwise maximize the sentence probability given the model. Still, the translation is good. But why? The exact search works much worse than what was believed to be its poor approximation. And this is weird.

Do you remember the paper on the Generalized Framework for Decoding that I discussed here in July? They wanted to have one single equation covering all ways of decoding: left-to-right, non-autoregressive, insertion-based… The equation contains a special term for length probability.

Generalized framework: length

In the “optimal” decoding, we assume target sentence lengths are equally probable. It is hardly a realistic assumption, especially given that the number of possible hypotheses grows exponentially with the hypothesis length. So, even though they are equally probable, this uniform probability gets distributed into more and more hypotheses with the growing length, which poses a great advantage for the short hypotheses—even the empty ones.

This is, of course, a well-known problem that we need to address even when doing the standard beam search. The heuristic that we use is called length normalization and is basically computing the geometric average of the probabilities (with slight modifications now and then) instead of multiplying the probabilities. This works well in practice, but the problem is that the scores are no longer probabilities, i.e., they are not what the model was trained for. In the paper, they also did the exact inference under the length normalization condition, and they still got a result that was 10 BLEU points worse than the beam search.

My takeaway from the paper is that modeling sentences using a chain rule probably just wrong. But we are extremely lucky that:

  1. The wrong equation leads to reasonably good loss function that allows the model to train;

  2. The decoding heuristics (that do suboptimal decisions all the time) compensate for the flaws of the chain rule formulation so that no one really noticed it might be wrong.

For me, the message of the paper is clear: The probabilistic assumptions of NMT models are wrong and we have no idea why the models work so well. It is kind of disturbing, isn’t it?

BibTeX Reference

    title = "On {NMT} Search Errors and Model Errors: Cat Got Your Tongue?",
    author = "Stahlberg, Felix  and
      Byrne, Bill",
    booktitle = "Proceedings of the 2019 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing and the 9th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (EMNLP-IJCNLP)",
    month = nov,
    year = "2019",
    address = "Hong Kong, China",
    publisher = "Association for Computational Linguistics",
    url = "",
    doi = "10.18653/v1/D19-1331",
    pages = "3354--3360",