BY: ITWeb, Staff Writer.

Microsoft has added 13 African languages to its Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services Translator.

This enables text and documents to be translated to and from these languages across the Microsoft ecosystem of products and services.

Sesotho (Southern Sotho), Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho), Setswana (Tswana) and Xhosa are the latest of South Africa’s official languages to be supported, following last year’s addition of Zulu, says the firm.

The other languages are chiShona, Hausa, Igbo, Kinyarwanda, Lingala, Luganda, Nyanja, Rundi and Yoruba.

According to Microsoft, this brings the total number of supported languages to 124, adding language support for millions of people in Africa and worldwide.

In January, rival tech giant Google expanded the number of languages that can be translated offline to 33.

This means users of Google’s multilingual machine translation service can now download local languages, isiXhosa Sesotho and isiZulu, onto their device and have them translated without an internet connection

“This release highlights our mission to build meaningful cognitive products and services that improve accessibility and empower local communities,” says Lillian Barnard, CEO of Microsoft South Africa.

“As the benefits and value of translation support become more evident, particularly for African languages, we will see it help break down language barriers and enable more people to connect with each other and technology in a way that empowers them to do and achieve more.”

Microsoft notes integrations across its ecosystem include Microsoft 365 for translating text and documents, the Microsoft Edge browser and Bing search engine for translating whole webpages, SwiftKey for translating messages, LinkedIn for translating user-submitted content, and the Translator app for multilingual conversations on the move.

Earlier this year, the software firm put artificial intelligence (AI) at the core of its overhaul of Bing and Edge.

Using Translator, Microsoft says, people and organisations can add African languages’ text translation to apps, websites, workflows and tools, or use Translator’s Document Translation feature to translate entire documents, or volumes of documents, in a variety of different file formats, preserving their original formatting.

They can also use Translator with Cognitive Services such as Speech or Computer Vision to add additional capabilities such as speech-to-text and image translation into their apps, it notes.

Educators can create a more inclusive classroom for students and parents, with live captioning and cross-language understanding.

“Translator aims to break the language barrier between people and cultures all over the world. To achieve this, Microsoft has continuously added languages and dialects to this service, while ensuring the translation quality of the supported languages by using the latest neural machine translation (NMT) techniques,” says the firm.

The company, through its Microsoft Research unit, first developed machine translation systems more than a decade ago. It says it has consistently built on and improved these systems and techniques, adopting NMT technology as AI evolved, and migrating all machine translation systems to neural models to improve translation fluency and accuracy.

Working with partners in language communities who can help gather data for specific languages and who have access to human-translated texts also helps to overcome the challenge of obtaining enough bilingual data to train and produce a machine translation model, says Microsoft.

It points out this network of partners helps collect bilingual data, consult with community members and evaluate the quality of the resulting machine translation models.

“The addition of new African languages means more people are able to connect and that language will become a seamless feature of using technology,” says Barnard.

There are plans to add more of the continent’s most widely-spoken languages as part of Microsoft’s mission to build meaningful cognitive products and services that improve accessibility and local engagement, says the firm.

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