Towards Making the Most of Cross-Lingual Transfer for Zero-Shot Neural Machine Translation

This paper demonstrates that multilingual pretraining and multilingual fine-tuning are both critical for facilitating cross-lingual transfer in zero-shot translation, where the neural machine translation (NMT) model is tested on source languages unseen during supervised training. Following this idea, we present SixT+, a strong many-to-English NMT model that supports 100 source languages but is trained with a parallel dataset in only six source languages. SixT+ initializes the decoder embedding and the full encoder with XLM-R large and then trains the encoder and decoder layers with a simple two-stage training strategy. SixT+ achieves impressive performance on many-to-English translation. It significantly outperforms CRISS and m2m-100, two strong multilingual NMT systems, with an average gain of 7.2 and 5.0 BLEU respectively. Additionally, SixT+ offers a set of model parameters that can be further fine-tuned to other unsupervised tasks. We demonstrate that adding SixT+ initialization outperforms state-of-the-art explicitly designed unsupervised NMT models on Si<->En and Ne<->En by over 1.2 average BLEU. When applied to zero-shot cross-lingual abstractive summarization, it produces an average performance gain of 12.3 ROUGE-L over mBART-ft. We conduct detailed analyses to understand the key ingredients of SixT+, including multilinguality of the auxiliary parallel data, positional disentangled encoder, and the cross-lingual transferability of its encoder.

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