How generative AI is transforming te reo Māori translation

 |   Grant Straker, CEO of Straker

Language is one the greatest gifts our world has ever received. Through language we’re able to communicate with each other and also express our uniqueness.

Languages are a way of seeing things. The way we explain different concepts – or whether the concepts exist in our language at all – provides a vital window to our culture. As Microsoft President Brad Smith put it: “When a community loses a language, it loses its connection to the past – and part of its present. It loses a piece of its identity.”

Te reo Māori is part of Aotearoa’s identity. When Kiwis travel, we communicate with others in English, the international language of business. But when we share what makes us unique, what do we talk about? Thanks to the success of the All Blacks, people know us for the haka. We’re also known for being “Kiwi”, for our celebrities such as Taika Waititi and places like Rotorua, Kaikoura and Waiheke. What all of these people, places and things have in common is a language – te reo Māori.

Growing up, I wasn’t able to express myself in the language of my people, something that’s helped shape who I am and what I do as the founder of a translation technology company today. Not only do we have to be open to using te reo Māori, we have to get smarter about harnessing technology to ensure more New Zealanders have an opportunity to engage with it as they go about their day.

The World Economic Forum is predicting that within the next 100 years, around 1,500 languages could disappear forever. The research found that regionally dominant languages taught in class often overshadow indigenous tongues. Unless they’re used regularly and encouraged to become a part of people’s daily lives, these foundations of our culture get lost. Without them, we lose so much more than just words – we lose what makes us uniquely us.

News organisations in Aotearoa are clearly aware of this. It’s been encouraging to see the great changes that have been made in the past two decades, from the foundation of Whakaata Māori (formerly Māori Television) 20 years ago, to the common usage of te reo Māori on our mainstream television news, to a greater focus on providing content for and by Māori in Stuff and many other major outlets across the motu.

However, getting more content actually in te reo Māori into mainstream media is a real challenge. The problem is that there just aren’t enough te reo Māori speakers in news organisations to generate or translate the news at speed or at scale. Of the 140 languages we translate, Māori and Pacific languages are among the most expensive, because of the scarcity of translators. We have strong data that shows the more expensive the language is to translate, the less it is used and the less it flourishes.

When I travelled to Microsoft headquarters in the US two years ago, I approached Brad Smith and put the challenge to him. Was there anything technology could do to help?

I’m now thrilled to be seeing the results of that conversation, with the launch of Stuff’s new te reo Māori translation tool. After that fateful meeting, Microsoft provided support to my company, Straker, to develop an automated translation platform. The platform combines Straker’s existing translation tools with the Microsoft Translator platform and AI technology. This is now enabling Stuff to translate entire news articles and other content into te reo Māori at scale.

This partnership aims to dramatically boost inclusion of te reo Māori speakers, and support te reo Māori as a living, vibrant language people can use in their everyday lives. And we hope it’s just the start, inspiring more organisations to consider how they can use new tools like generative AI to boost equality, diversity and inclusion and preserve our cultural treasures.

The beauty of the model that we’ve developed together is that humans remain at the centre of the translations. Te reo Māori is rich in nuance, with one term able to mean many things. While the AI can create a draft in seconds, context is essential. We’re excited to see that Stuff has created new roles, appointing a kaiwhakamāori (translator) to oversee bilingual content and check translations before they’re published. The more they work alongside the AI platform and our own experts at Straker, the faster and better its translations will be – and the more content can be translated.

More than anything, this partnership shows how technology can be a real enabler for Aotearoa society and culture, provided there’s a real human at the heart. Beyond preserving language, a willingness to explore and collaborate on these kinds of solutions can help us address the major challenges our societies face, from climate change to loss of our native species. By doing so, we not only reinforce the foundations we’re built on, we build a much stronger future.