New ways to deliver news

Click to play an audio version of this article —

Text-to-speech and Spanish translation help keep people informed and connected

by Melanie Jongsma, Publisher

LANSING, Ill. (April 30, 2021) – Two new features have begun appearing on selected articles at The Lansing Journal website. The audio play bar (seen above) indicates a text-to-speech option, and the two small flags above the bar indicate a translation function.

Readers might find audible news convenient as they make breakfast, take a morning walk, or simply want to give their eyes a break from the screen. Although the text-to-speech is automated, early reviewers were impressed with the quality of the readings. Computer-generated voices and phrasing have greatly improved in the past decade, as evidenced by the development of voices like Siri and Alexa. In the technology we are using on The Lansing Journal website, the pronunciation is not perfect, and the reading is not very expressive, but the voice does sound quite “real.”

We’ve also begun adding a translation option to many articles, and we plan to roll that out as a standard feature. We are grateful for the input we received from Spanish-speaking friends of The Lansing Journal, Miguel Gutierrez and Martha Vargas. They pointed out the shortcomings of the automated translation, but they also let us know that most of the translated articles are 80–90% understandable. And they were impressed with how accurate the pronunciation was when they used the audio function to read the translated text in Spanish.

Husband-and-wife team Miguel Gutierrez and Martha Vargas reviewed several of our translated articles and shared them with other native Spanish speakers. Their ongoing input will be valuable as The Lansing Journal explores ways to keep people informed and connected. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma, 2019)

Too literal

It was interesting to learn about the shortcomings. In some cases, Gutierrez explained, the translation was too literal. For example, an article about the new Lester Crawl Primary Center uses the word “groundbreaking” several times. The word carries meaning in English because of the ceremony it refers to, where people symbolically insert a shovel into the dirt. Without that ceremony as a reference, the word groundbreaking in Spanish is translated literally into something like “earth smashing.” Vargas explained that groundbreaking ceremonies are not a tradition in Mexico, so it’s difficult to find a Spanish word that conveys the same meaning. The most similar concept she could think of was “laying the cornerstone.”

In that same article, the automatic translator struggled with “School Board,” interpreting “Board” as a literal piece of wood. While there may be times when our reporters can choose words that translate easily, occasionally no good alternate will be available, and the translation will suffer.

Gutierrez and Vargas explained that as they read the articles in Spanish, they sometimes had to toggle back to the English version in order to make sense of the translation. Their fluency in both languages allows them to see where and why the wrong translations are happening.

A good start

The Lansing Journal is a community newspaper. Its purpose is building community by keeping people informed and connected. Providing audible versions of our stories and Spanish versions of our stories is a way to enhance connections. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start that we can build on.

Feel free to post a comment below to let us know what you think of these new features.
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