Google Launches Khmer Translation Service

Internet search giant Google on Friday launched a new service that for the first time allows users to instantly translate Khmer script into other languages.

Khmer is the most recent addition to the 66-strong collection of languages between which words, sentences or whole websites can be translated back and forth in the Google Translate service, which can present the results as script or phonetically. Regional languages Lao, Vietnamese and Thai are all already available on the service.

Divon Lan, a project manager in Google’s next wave emerging countries division, who worked on the new service, said the launch had been timed as a gift to Cambo­dians in the week of Khmer New Year.

“We thought it was appropriate to celebrate,” he said from Cambodia.

Mr. Lan explained that the online tool uses a complicated algorithm to scour the Web for documents that appear in both Khmer and translated into another language, and picks up on patterns that repeat across many examples.

The service in Khmer is only at its “Alpha” stage, meaning that users can expect to find some errors or a shortage of options in translations.

Mr. Lan said the relative shortage of Khmer-language documents published online meant it was more difficult to come up with flawless translation. However, he said, there had been an uptick recently in content appearing on Khmer-language websites, and users could make suggestions to help the service toward more accuracy.

“The more people use it and the more people suggest corrections, the more Khmer content comes online—the more it will improve,” he said.

Mr. Lan said that expanding the service into Khmer—a project on which Google worked with volunteer Cambodian programmers—posed other difficulties.

“Every language has its own unique quirks. That’s what makes doing this interesting,” he said.

“There is no white space be­tween words [in Khmer]…and people are far less particular about how they write the word. They will write it the way they hear it. We see the same word spelt with many different variants.”

Cambodians have already begun experimenting with the service.

Chan Ratana, 26, a graduate who works in the shipping department of a Chinese garment firm, said he was proud to see his native tongue in Google Translate.

“I tested it by translating from Chinese to Khmer and English to Khmer. I can understand these international languages better now,” he said. “I think Khmer Google Translate is very useful and it makes it easier to study and research to improve our knowledge.”

According to the World Bank’s last estimate, the number of Internet users in Cambodia was less than 450,000 in 2011. But the number is likely to have grown since then with the expansion of mobile Internet services.

Mr. Lan, an Israeli who is married to a Cambodian, said he hoped the service would increase the reach of the Internet in Cambodia.

“My mother-in-law only speaks Khmer, and because of that, she doesn’t use the Internet,” he said.

“I think it is my objective to get to a point where all Cambodians can use the Internet, not just the educated and privileged.”

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