Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Computer Science

First Advisor

James H Martin

Second Advisor

Daniel Jurafsky

Third Advisor

Christopher D Manning


The goal of this dissertation is to determine the best way to train a statistical machine translation system. I first develop a state-of-the-art machine translation system called Phrasal and then use it to examine a wide variety of potential learning algorithms and optimization criteria and arrive at two very surprising results. First, despite the strong intuitive appeal of more recent evaluation metrics, training to these metrics is no better than the older traditional approach of training to BLEU. Second, the most widely used learning algorithm for training machine translation systems, called minimum error rate training (MERT), works no better than standard machine learning algorithms such as log-linear models. This result demonstrates that machine translation does not require using a special purpose learning algorithm, but rather can be approached in a manner similar to other natural language processing and machine learning tasks. These results have a number of important implications. Contrary to existing beliefs, work on improving machine translation evaluation metrics and then training to the improved metrics will not in itself result in improved translation systems. Even more significantly, the widespread usage of MERT has limited the sort of models that can be used for machine translation, as it does not scale well to large numbers of features. If it is not necessary to use MERT to train competitive systems, machine translation can be treated similarly to any other natural language processing task with models that include arbitrarily large feature sets.