Stabilizing Live Speech Translation in Google Translate

The transcription feature in the Google Translate app may be used to create a live, translated transcription for events like meetings and speeches, or simply for a story at the dinner table in a language you don’t understand. In such settings, it is useful for the translated text to be displayed promptly to help keep the reader engaged and in the moment.

However, with early versions of this feature the translated text suffered from multiple real-time revisions, which can be distracting. This was because of the non-monotonic relationship between the source and the translated text, in which words at the end of the source sentence can influence words at the beginning of the translation.

Transcribe (old) — Left: Source transcript as it arrives from speech recognition. Right: Translation that is displayed to the user. The frequent corrections made to the translation interfere with the reading experience.

Today, we are excited to describe some of the technology behind a recently released update to the transcribe feature in the Google Translate app that significantly reduces translation revisions and improves the user experience. The research enabling this is presented in two papers. The first formulates an evaluation framework tailored to live translation and develops methods to reduce instability. The second demonstrates that these methods do very well compared to alternatives, while still retaining the simplicity of the original approach. The resulting model is much more stable and provides a noticeably improved reading experience within Google Translate.

Transcribe (new) — Left: Source transcript as it arrives from speech recognition. Right: Translation that is displayed to the user. At the cost of a small delay, the translation now rarely needs to be corrected.

Evaluating Live Translation
Before attempting to make any improvements, it was important to first understand and quantifiably measure the different aspects of the user experience, with the goal of maximizing quality while minimizing latency and instability. In “Re-translation Strategies For Long Form, Simultaneous, Spoken Language Translation”, we developed an evaluation framework for live-translation that has since guided our research and engineering efforts. This work presents a performance measure using the following metrics:

  • Erasure: Measures the additional reading burden on the user due to instability. It is the number of words that are erased and replaced for every word in the final translation.
  • Lag: Measures the average time that has passed between when a user utters a word and when the word’s translation displayed on the screen becomes stable. Requiring stability avoids rewarding systems that can only manage to be fast due to frequent corrections.
  • BLEU score: Measures the quality of the final translation. Quality differences in intermediate translations are captured by a combination of all metrics.

It is important to recognize the inherent trade-offs between these different aspects of quality. Transcribe enables live-translation by stacking machine translation on top of real-time automatic speech recognition. For each update to the recognized transcript, a fresh translation is generated in real time; several updates can occur each second. This approach placed Transcribe at one extreme of the 3 dimensional quality framework: it exhibited minimal lag and the best quality, but also had high erasure. Understanding this allowed us to work towards finding a better balance.

Stabilizing Re-translation
One straightforward solution to reduce erasure is to decrease the frequency with which translations are updated. Along this line, “streaming translation” models (for example, STACL and MILk) intelligently learn to recognize when sufficient source information has been received to extend the translation safely, so the translation never needs to be changed. In doing so, streaming translation models are able to achieve zero erasure.

The downside with such streaming translation models is that they once again take an extreme position: zero erasure necessitates sacrificing BLEU and lag. Rather than eliminating erasure altogether, a small budget for occasional instability may allow better BLEU and lag. More importantly, streaming translation would require retraining and maintenance of specialized models specifically for live-translation. This precludes the use of streaming translation in some cases, because keeping a lean pipeline is an important consideration for a product like Google Translate that supports 100+ languages.

In our second paper, “Re-translation versus Streaming for Simultaneous Translation”, we show that our original “re-translation” approach to live-translation can be fine-tuned to reduce erasure and achieve a more favorable erasure/lag/BLEU trade-off. Without training any specialized models, we applied a pair of inference-time heuristics to the original machine translation models — masking and biasing.

The end of an on-going translation tends to flicker because it is more likely to have dependencies on source words that have yet to arrive. We reduce this by truncating some number of words from the translation until the end of the source sentence has been observed. This masking process thus trades latency for stability, without affecting quality. This is very similar to delay-based strategies used in streaming methods such as Wait-k, but applied only during inference and not during training.

Neural machine translation often “see-saws” between equally good translations, causing unnecessary erasure. We improve stability by biasing the output towards what we have already shown the user. On top of reducing erasure, biasing also tends to reduce lag by stabilizing translations earlier. Biasing interacts nicely with masking, as masking words that are likely to be unstable also prevents the model from biasing toward them. However, this process does need to be tuned carefully, as a high bias, along with insufficient masking, may have a negative impact on quality.

The combination of masking and biasing, produces a re-translation system with high quality and low latency, while virtually eliminating erasure. The table below shows how the metrics react to the heuristics we introduced and how they compare to the other systems discussed above. The graph demonstrates that even with a very small erasure budget, re-translation surpasses zero-flicker streaming translation systems (MILk and Wait-k) trained specifically for live-translation.

System     BLEU     Lag (s)     Erasure
Re-translation (old)     20.4     4.1     2.1
+ Stabilization (new)     20.2     4.1     0.1
Evaluation of re-translation on IWSLT test 2018 Engish-German (TED talks) with and without the inference-time stabilization heuristics of masking and biasing. Stabilization drastically reduces erasure. Translation quality, measured in BLEU, is very slightly impacted due to biasing. Despite masking, the effective lag remains the same because the translation stabilizes sooner.
Comparison of re-translation with stabilization and specialized streaming models (Wait-k and MILk) on WMT 14 English-German. The BLEU-lag trade-off curve for re-translation is obtained via different combinations of bias and masking while maintaining an erasure budget of less than 2 words erased for every 10 generated. Re-translation offers better BLEU / lag trade-offs than streaming models which cannot make corrections and require specialized training for each trade-off point.

The solution outlined above returns a decent translation very quickly, while allowing it to be revised as more of the source sentence is spoken. The simple structure of re-translation enables the application of our best speech and translation models with minimal effort. However, reducing erasure is just one part of the story — we are also looking forward to improving the overall speech translation experience through new technology that can reduce lag when the translation is spoken, or that can enable better transcriptions when multiple people are speaking.

Thanks to Te I, Dirk Padfield, Pallavi Baljekar, Goerge Foster, Wolfgang Macherey, John Richardson, Kuang-Che Lee, Byran Lin, Jeff Pittman, Sami Iqram, Mengmeng Niu, Macduff Hughes, Chris Kau, Nathan Bain.

Source: Google AI Blog