On-device browser translations with Firefox Translations

The Mozilla Firefox web browser is finally beginning to catch up in a market where every competitor has an online language translation service feature. Firefox recently debuted its long-awaited privacy-preserving on-device translation service.

The built-in integration with Google Translate has been one of the Google Chrome browser’s leading advantages over its competitors. The translation service grants you effortless access to international content in languages you don’t understand. It gives you access to more of the web.

I attribute much of Google’s pan-European success to its translation services. Why would you want to switch to Chrome from a competitor like Firefox? Well, you can effortlessly access more of the web with Chrome than with Firefox.

Other web browsers — notably Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari, and Yandex Browser — have only recently added their own translation services. However, the Mozilla Firefox browser doesn’t currently have nor want its own online translation service.

Online translation services require you to either send the webpage address or contents of the page to the translation service provider. It translates the contents and sends it back to your device. This architecture sacrifices user privacy for convenience.

You can’t make an informed decision on whether you want to share the contents of a webpage or an email message with a translation service as you don’t know beforehand what the message says. This paradox can make you unintentionally compromise your privacy and the privacy of the sender.

Mozilla has gone in the opposite direction. Instead of relying on a centralized translation service, it’s hoping to perfect on-device translations. Mozilla has partnered with various European universities to develop on-device offline and privacy-preserving local translation services. The translation project was announced in 2019 as Project Bergamot.

The endeavor is funded by research grants from the European Union (EU). The EU is a natural supporter of this work with its 24 official languages and a total of 37 languages across the entire European Economic Area (EEA). Translation services are a necessity of European governance and commerce.

The first public release of Firefox Translations supports only eight languages with five additional languages in beta quality. The next version is expected to add two more languages plus one beta language. You can’t translate every supported language to and from every other support language.

It’s a far stretch from completely fulfilling the needs of the EU nor Firefox’s users. However, it’s a solid start and it hopefully will be developed to support more languages over time.

The Firefox Translations extension is available for free through the Firefox Extensions portal. I expect we’ll see Firefox Translation included by default in a future version of Firefox.

The extension uses an experimental application programming interface (API) called translationbar. The user interface is provided natively by Firefox with the extension providing the language-translation models. Other translation services, online or offline, will, presumably, be allowed to hook into this API in the future.

If you’re not a Firefox user, you can assess the translation service quality of the Mozilla Translate web front-end. Even though it’s a webpage, the translation happens on your device.

The translation models are all open-source. Outside the context of a web browser, this could be applied to provide privacy-preserving translations of chat messages and in other apps.

Apple’s Translator app on iOS and the Google Translator app on Android and iOS can optionally perform on-device translations when you’re offline. It’s not beyond the capabilities of these other actors to achieve on-device translation services. However, it — and by extension, your privacy — apparently isn’t a priority.