Evaluation of machine translation

Evaluation of machine translation

Various methods for the evaluation for machine translation have been employed. This article will focus on the evaluation of the output of machine translation, rather than on performance or usability evaluation.

Before covering the large scale studies, a brief comment will be made on one of the more pervasive evaluation techniques, that of round-trip translation (or "back translation"). One of the typical ways for lay people to assess the quality of a machine translation engine is through translating from a source language into a target language, and then back to the source language using the same engine.

Round-trip translation

Although this may intuitively be a good method of evaluation, it has been shown that round-trip translation is a, "poor predictor of quality". [Somers (2005)] The reason why it is such a poor predictor of quality is reasonably intuitive. When a round-trip translation is performed, the method is not testing one system, but two systems. The language pair of the engine for translating "in to" the target language, and the language pair translating "back from" the target language.

Consider the following examples of round-trip translation performed from English to Italian and Portuguese from Somers (2005):



In the first example, where the text is translated into Italian and then back into English, although the English text is significantly garbled, the Italian is a serviceable translation. In the second example, although the text that is translated back into English is perfect, the Portuguese translation is meaningless.

While round-trip translation may be useful in order to generate a "surplus of fun" [Gaspari (2006)] , the methodology is deficient for any serious study of the quality of machine translation output.

Human evaluation

This section will cover two of the large scale evaluation studies that have had a significant impact on the field. The first study to be presented will be the ALPAC 1966 study, and then the ARPA study [White et al. (1994)] will be examined.

Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee (ALPAC)

One of the constituent parts of the ALPAC report was a study comparing different levels of human translation with machine translation output, using human subjects as judges. The human judges were specially trained for the purpose. The evaluation study compared an MT system translating from Russian into English with human translators, on two variables.

The variables studied were "intelligibility" and "fidelity". Intelligibility was a measure of how "understandable" the sentence was, and was measured on a scale of 1—9. Fidelity was a measure of how much information the translated sentence retained compared to the original, and was measured on a scale of 0—9. Each point on the scale was associated with a textual description. For example, 3 on the intelligibility scale was described as "Generally unintelligible; it tends to read like nonsense but, with a considerable amount of reflection and study, one can at least hypothesize the idea intended by the sentence" [ALPAC (1966)] .

Intelligibility was measured without reference to the original, while fidelity was measured indirectly. The translated sentence was presented, and after reading it and absorbing the content, the original sentence was presented. The judges were asked to rate the original sentence on informativeness. So, the more informative the original sentence, the lower the quality of the translation.

The study showed that the variables were highly correlated when the human judgement was averaged persentence. The variation among raters was small, but the researchers recommended that at the very least, three or four raters should be used. The evaluation methodology managed to separate translations by humans from translations by machines with ease.

The study concluded that, "highly reliable assessments can be made of the quality of human and machine translations". [ALPAC (1966)] .

Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)

As part of the Human Language Technologies Program, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created a methodology to evaluate machine translation systems, and continues to perform evaluations based on this methodology. The evaluation programme was instigated in 1991, and continues to this day. Details of the programme can be found in White et al. (1994) and White (1995).

The evaluation programme involved testing several systems based on different theoretical approaches; statistical,rule-based and human-assisted. A number of methods for the evaluation of the output from these systems were tested in 1992 and the most recent suitable methods were selected for inclusion in the programmes for subsequent years. The methods were; comprehension evaluation, quality panel evaluation, and evaluation based on adequacy and fluency.

Comprehension evaluation aimed to directly compare systems based on the results from multiple choice comprehension tests, as in Church et al. (1993). The texts chosen were a set of articles in English on the subject of financial news. These articles were translated by professional translators into a series of language pairs, and then translated back into English using the machine translation systems. It was decided that this was not adequate for a standalone method of comparing systems and as such abandoned due to issues with the modification of meaning in the process of translating from English.

The idea of quality panel evaluation was to submit translations to a panel of expert native English speakers who were professional translators and get them to evaluate them. The evaluations were done on the basis of a metric, modelled on a standard US government metric used to rate human translations. This was good from the point of view that the metric was "externally motivated" [White et al. (1994)] , since it was not specifically developed for machine translation. However, the quality panel evaluation was very difficult to set up logistically, as it necessitated having a number of experts together in one place for a week or more, and furthermore for them to reach consensus. This method was also abandoned.

Along with a modified form of the comprehension evaluation (re-styled as informativeness evaluation), the mostpopular method was to obtain ratings from monolingual judges for segments of a document. The judges were presented with a segment, and asked to rate it for two variables, adequacy and fluency. Adequacy is a rating of how much information is transferred between the original and the translation, and fluency is a rating of how good the English is. This technique was found to cover the relevant parts of the quality panel evaluation, while at the same time being easier to deploy, as it didn't require expert judgement.

Measuring systems based on adequacy and fluency, along with informativeness is now the standard methodology for theARPA evaluation program. [White (1995)]

Automatic evaluation

In the context of this article, a metric will be understood as a measurement. A metric for the evaluation ofmachine translation output is a measurement of the quality of the output. The quality of a translation is inherently subjective, there is no objective or quantifiable "good". Therefore, the task for any metric is to assign scores of quality in such a way that they correlate with human judgement of quality. That is, a metric should score highly those translations which humans score highly, and give low scores to those which humans give low scores to. Human judgement is used as the benchmark for assessing the automatic metrics as humans are the end-users of any translation output.

The measure of evaluation for metrics is correlation with human judgement. This is generally done at two levels, at the sentence level, where scores are calculated by the metric for a set of translated sentences, and then correlated against human judgement for the same sentences. And at the corpus level, where scores over the sentences are aggregated for both human judgements and metric judgements, and these aggregate scores are then correlated. Figures for correlation at the sentence level are rarely reported, although Banerjee et al. (2005) do give correlation figures which show that, at least for their metric, sentence level correlation is substantially worse than corpus level correlation.

While not widely reported, it has been noted that the genre, or domain, of a text has an effect on the correlation obtained when using metrics. Coughlin (2003) reports that comparing the candidate text against a single reference translation does not adversely affect the correlation of metrics when working in a restricted domain text.

Even if a metric is shown to correlate well with human judgement in one study, on one corpus, it does not follow that this correlation will carry over to another corpus. Good performance of a metric, across text types or domains, is important for the reusability of the metric. A metric that only works for text in a specific domain is useful, but less useful than one that works across many domains, for the reason that the necessity to create a new metric for every new evaluation or domain is undesirable.

Another important factor in the usefulness of an evaluation metric is to have good correlation, even when working with small amounts of data, that is candidate sentences and reference translations. Turian et al. (2003) point out that, "Any MT evaluation measure is less reliable on shorter translations", and show that increasing the amount of data improves the reliability of a metric. However, they add that "... reliability on shorter texts, as short as one sentence or even one phrase, is highly desirable because a reliable MT evaluation measure can greatly accelerate exploratory data analysis". [Turian et al. (2003)]

Banerjee et al. (2005) highlight five attributes that a good automatic metric must possess; correlation, sensitivity, consistency, reliability and generality. Any good metric must correlate highly with human judgement, it must be consistent, giving similar results to the same MT system on similar text. It must be sensitive to differences between MT systems and reliable in that MT systems that score similarly should be expected to perform similarly. Finally, the metric must be general, that is it should work with different text domains, in a wide range of scenarios and MT tasks.

The aim of this subsection is to give an overview of the state of the art in automatic metrics for evaluating machine translation. [While the metrics are described as for the evaluation of machine translation, in practice they may also be used to measure the quality of human translation. The same metrics have even been used for plagiarism detection, for details see Somers et al. (2006).]


BLEU was one of the first metrics to report high correlation with human judgements of quality. Themetric is currently one of the most popular in the field. The central idea behind the metric is that "the closer amachine translation is to a professional human translation, the better it is". [Papineni et al. (2002)] The metric calculates scores for individual segments, generally sentences, and then averages these scores over the whole corpus in order to reach a final score. It has been shown to correlate highly with human judgements of quality at the corpus level. [Papineni et al. (2002), Coughlin (2003)]

BLEU uses a modified form of precision to compare a candidate translation against multiple reference translations. The metric modifies simple precision since machine translation systems have been known to generate more words than appear in a reference text.


The NIST metric is based on the BLEU metric, but with some alterations. Where BLEU simply calculates n-gram precision adding equal weight to each one, NIST also calculates how informative a particular n-gram is. That is to say when a correct n-gram is found, the rarer that n-gram is, the more weight it will be given. [Doddington (2002)]

For example, if the bigram "on the" is correctly matched, it will receive lower weight than the correct matching of bigram "interesting calculations", as this is less likely to occur. NIST also differs from BLEU in its calculation of the brevity penalty insofar as small variations in translation length do not impact the overall score as much.

Word error rate

The Word error rate (WER) is a metric based on the Levenshtein distance, where the Levenshtein distance works at the character level, WER works at the word level. It was originally used for measuring the performance of speech recognition systems, but is also used in the evaluation of machine translation. The metric is based on the calculation of the number of words which differ between a piece of machine translated text and a reference translation.

A related metric is the Position-independent word error rate (PER), this allows for re-ordering of words and sequences of words between a translated text and a references translation.


The METEOR metric is designed to address some of the deficiencies inherent in the BLEU metric. The metricis based on the weighted harmonic mean of unigram precision and unigram recall. The metric was designed after research by Lavie (2004) into the significance of recall in evaluation metrics. Their research showed that metrics based on recall consistently achieved higher correlation than those based on precision alone, cf. BLEU and NIST. [Lavie (2004)]

METEOR also includes some other features not found in other metrics, such as synonymy matching, where instead of matching only on the exact word form, the metric will also match on synonyms. For example, if the word "good" appears in the reference and the word "well" appears in the translation, this will be counted as a match. The metric is also includes a stemmer, which lemmatises words and matches on the lemmatised forms. The implementation of the metric is modular insofar as the algorithms that match words are implemented as modules, and new modules that implement different matching strategies may easily be added.

ee also

* Machine translation software usability



* Banerjee, S. and Lavie, A. (2005) "METEOR: An Automatic Metric for MT Evaluation with Improved Correlation with Human Judgments" in "Proceedings of Workshop on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Evaluation Measures for MT and/or Summarization at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Association of Computational Linguistics (ACL-2005), Ann Arbor, Michigan, June 2005"
* Church, K. and Hovy, E. (1993) "Good Applications for Crummy Machine Translation". "Machine Translation", 8 pp. 239--258
* Coughlin, D. (2003) "Correlating Automated and Human Assessments of Machine Translation Quality" in "MT Summit IX, New Orleans, USA" pp. 23--27
* Doddington, G. (2002) "Automatic evaluation of machine translation quality using n-gram cooccurrence statistics". "Proceedings of the Human Language Technology Conference (HLT), San Diego, CA" pp.128--132
* Gaspari, F. (2006) "Look Who's Translating. Impersonations, Chinese Whispers and Fun with Machine Translation on the Internet" in "Proceedings of the 11th Annual Conference of the European Association of Machine Translation"
* Lavie, A., Sagae, K. and Jayaraman, S. (2004) "The Significance of Recall in Automatic Metrics for MT Evaluation" in "Proceedings of AMTA 2004, Washington DC. September 2004"
* Papineni, K., Roukos, S., Ward, T., and Zhu, W. J. (2002). "BLEU: a method for automatic evaluation of machine translation" in "ACL-2002: 40th Annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics" pp. 311--318
* Somers, H. (2005) " [http://www.co.umist.ac.uk/~harold/RoundTrip.doc Round-trip Translation: What Is It Good For?] "
* Somers, H., Gaspari, F. and Ana Niño (2006) "Detecting Inappropriate Use of Free Online Machine Translation by Language Students - A Special Case of Plagiarism Detection". "Proceedings of the 11th Annual Conference of the European Association of Machine Translation, Oslo University (Norway)" pp. 41--48
* ALPAC (1966) "Languages and machines: computers in translation and linguistics". A report by the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee, Division of Behavioral Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 1966. (Publication 1416.)
* Turian, J., Shen, L. and Melamed, I. D. (2003) "Evaluation of Machine Translation and its Evaluation". "Proceedings of the MT Summit IX, New Orleans, USA, 2003" pp. 386--393
* White, J., O'Connell, T. and O'Mara, F. (1994) "The ARPA MT Evaluation Methodologies: Evolution, Lessons, and Future Approaches". "Proceedings of the 1st Conference of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas. Columbia, MD" pp. 193--205
* White, J. (1995) "Approaches to Black Box MT Evaluation". "Proceedings of MT Summit V"

Further reading

* [http://www.mt-archive.info/methods-1.htm Machine Translation Archive: Subject Index : Publications after 2000] (see "Evaluation" subheading)
* [http://www.mt-archive.info/methods-2.htm Machine Translation Archive: Subject Index : Publications prior to 2000] (see "Evaluation" subheading)

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