Does WMT speak translationese? And who else speaks translationese? Is the success of back-translation fake news? These are the questions that implicitly ask authors of a paper called Domain, Translationese and Noise in Synthetic Data for Neural Machine Translation that was uploaded on arXiv earlier this month.

Translationese is a term by which we mean the language of translation. (At least in natural language processing, otherwise it is a rather pejorative term for unnaturally sounding translation.) When someone translates something from one language into another, the language of the translation is different from what would a native speaker say if the same text was not a translation. It is hard to notice for humans, but surprisingly easy to distinguish automatically. It seems like an innocent fact, but it has tremendous consequences for machine translation and its evaluation especially when it uses back-translation.

Machine translation is approached basically as a behaviorist simulation. We do not care what actually translation is or what makes it good—we just want to learn a process that simulates how people translate and that is it. When people translate, they by definition translate into translationese. However, when we use back-translation for training data augmentation, we teach the model to do something else: translate from (machine-)translationese into the original language, and funny enough, the standard evaluation datasets tend to reward the models for doing so.

Back-translation is a technique of generating synthetic training data for machine translation. When we train a system for translation from $L_1$ into $L_2$, we can take additional sentences in $L_2$ and use it to better teach the decoder how authentic sentences in $L_2$ look like. Because we cannot really train the decoder without the encoder, we need something to feed the encoder with. We just use automatic translation from $L_2$ to $L_1$. With the synthetic data, we get a better system that can be in theory used to train even a better system in the opposite direction… something similar to what AlphaGo did when it improved by playing Go repeatedly against different versions of itself.

The paper shows that it is far from being as easy as this. (By the way, one of the authors of this paper is Rico Sennrich, the same guy that introduced back-translation into MT four years ago.) The output of machine translation trained on authentic parallel data has similar statistical properties to translationese. This is shown in the paper by experiments with language modeling. Translationese sentences are assigned a higher probability by language models trained on machine-translated sentences. Given that, the natural question is: wouldn’t it be better to generate synthetic target sentences and train a new model with them?

With what we already know, the main results of the paper pose no surprise, but first, let me explain how the standard test sets used for the WMT competitions look like. Since 2015, every test set has 2 parts:

Language L1 Language L2
News in language L1 Translation into L2
Translation into L1 News in L2 L2

So, half of the test set is kind of artificially reversed: instead of translating native sentences, we take translations in $L2$ and try to reversely translate them into the original native sentences in $L1$, which is obviously an artificial task.

Models trained with back-translation excel at translating from translationese into original languages (the artificial scenario), models trained on synthetic data-target sides are better for translation into translationese (the natural scenario). The same results got confirmed even in human evaluation. The gain on the artificial half of the test set is so big that it prevails in the aggregated results. This is why the research community believed that back-translation is so great for such a long time.

As the paper further shows, this is only true for high-resource language pairs where translation quality is high enough from the very beginning. If the output of the model is rubbish, something only vaguely related to the source sentence, it does not make any sense to reinforce the decoder in generating such sentences and augmenting training data with back-translation give better results.

Even though the quantitative results are quite convincing, it is still hard for me to understand, how can the forward-translated synthetic data help so much. The newly trained decoder only learns to generate what the previous decoder was generating, and it is the encoder that might get stronger by encountering more authentic sentences during training. Is the reason that the encoder is confronted with more authentic source sentences and fewer translationese sentences? (Because when collecting parallel training data, we do not care about what the original language was either.) Is thus translationese the new key term for machine translation? Or do the forward-translated synthetic data help for a different reason?

BibTeX Reference

@article{bogoychev2019domain,
title={Domain, Translationese and Noise in Synthetic Data for Neural Machine Translation},
author={Bogoychev, Nikolay and Sennrich, Rico},
journal={arXiv preprint arXiv:1911.03362},
year={2019}
}