Original or Translated? A Causal Analysis of the Impact of Translationese on Machine Translation Performance

Jingwei Ni
Zhijing Jin
Mrinmaya Sachan
Bernhard Scholkopf
Proceedings of the 2022 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies, Association for Computational Linguistics, Seattle, United States, pp. 5303-5320


Human-translated text displays distinct features from naturally written text in the same language. This phenomena, known as translationese, has been argued to confound the machine translation (MT) evaluation. Yet, we find that existing work on translationese neglects some important factors and the conclusions are mostly correlational but not causal. In this work, we collect CAUSALMT, a dataset where the MT training data are also labeled with the human translation directions. We inspect two critical factors, the train-test alignment (whether the human translation directions in the training and test sets are aligned), and data-model alignment (whether the model learns in the same direction as the human translation direction in the dataset). We show that these two factors have a large causal effect on the MT performance, in addition to the test-model misalignment highlighted by existing work on the impact of translationese in the test set. In light of our findings, we provide a set of suggestions for MT training and evaluation.