We explore the suitability of self-attention models for character-level neural machine translation. We test the standard transformer model, as well as a novel variant in which the encoder block combines information from nearby characters using convolutions. We perform extensive experiments on WMT and UN datasets, testing both bilingual and multilingual translation to English using up to three input languages (French, Spanish, and Chinese). Our transformer variant consistently outperforms the standard transformer at the character-level and converges faster while learning more robust character-level alignments.
Character-level Neural Machine Translation (NMT) models have recently achieved impressive results on many language pairs. They mainly do well for Indo-European language pairs, where the languages share the same writing system. However, for translating between Chinese and English, the gap between the two different writing systems poses a major challenge because of a lack of systematic correspondence between the individual linguistic units. In this paper, we enable character-level NMT for Chinese, by breaking down Chinese characters into linguistic units similar to that of Indo-European languages. We use the Wubi encoding scheme, which preserves the original shape and semantic information of the characters, while also being reversible. We show promising results from training Wubi-based models on the character- and subword-level with recurrent as well as convolutional models.