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Building a Translation App with GPT-3: The Story Behind My Creation

written by Eric J. Ma on 2023-02-05 | tags: gpt3 openai python blogging natural language processing machine learning artificial intelligence data science programming api dokku digitalocean deployment web app large language models translation faith christianity bible

Since 2011, I have been doing Chinese-to-English translation for Ark Channel. For as long as I can remember, I have used Google Translate to assist me in translation because Chinese is my 2nd language (though in Singapore, I learned it as a 1st language subject). So, with GPT3's capabilities at doing translation, I wanted to test drive its abilities to do machine translation. I have not been disappointed!

What's Ark Channel?

Ark Channel is written in Hong Kong by one person, Sam Kong. He started broadcasting short messages of Biblical encouragement in response to seeing suicide rates skyrocket in Hong Kong. Sam is not a computer person, but he writes each edition of Ark Channel in a relatively structured way. From Monday through Saturday, Ark Channel's edition looks something like this:

熱就退了!- 方舟台 14/01/2023 週六 太8上

耶穌說:我去醫治他 (v.7)

* 在主沒有「能」或「不能」,只有「肯」或「不肯」

今日聖經: 太8上

* 為何我認為聖經可信? Why is the Bible reliable? | Tim Keller at Columbia University

And on Sunday, it looks like this:

存感恩心,走永生路!- 15/01/2023 Sunday Hope 太8下

眾人希奇,說:這是怎樣的人 ? 連風和海也聽從他了(v.27)

* 恩主從不責備任何人用禱告來打擾祂的安寧,但卻責備人因膽怯而自亂陣腳。

今日聖經: 太8下

* 經典的詩歌,現代的心靈,如同中水的聲音 -
"Holy, Holy, Holy" — Singing at Together for the Gospel

Can GPT3 alone do the translation?

At first, I thought I would get GPT3 to do translation by using the following prompt, written inside a Python function:

def translate(text: str):
    prompt = f "Translate the following text into English: '{text}'."
    response = openai.Completion.create(
    return response['choices'][0]['text'].strip("\n")

However, this yielded unsatisfactory results. Here is one example translation for the January 14 entry:

The heat is gone! - Ark Platform 14/01/2023 Saturday 8am

Jesus said: I go to heal him (v.7)

* With the Lord there is no "can" or "cannot", only "will" or "will not"

Today's Bible: Matthew 8

* Why do I think the Bible is reliable? Why is the Bible reliable? | Tim Keller at Columbia University

At first glance, the translation is okay! The devotional text on the 3rd line is reasonably accurate. The additional text at the end is also translated well. There are other issues, though, that we could further tackle. Here they are.

  1. Per our usual practice, 方舟台 should be translated into Ark Channel.
  2. 太8 is mistranslated as 8am. It should be Matthew 8b or Matthew 8c. Both are acceptable without contextual information; sometimes, we split a chapter into 3 (abc) rather than 2 (ab).
  3. Additionally, the quoted verse on the 2nd line might need to be corrected and verified.
  4. Translating the entire text uses up a lot of tokens.

To solve point 3, Ark Channel historically uses the NKJV version. However, I have sometimes used the NIV version to translate (primarily out of habit). If we can extract the Bible book, chapter, and verse number from the free text, we might be able to hit an API to automatically get an authoritative translation rather than use GPT3 to do an approximately correct translation.

To solve point 4, if we could translate just the devotional text and additional text fields while using dictionary lookups for the rest, we could save a lot of OpenAI API calls.

Structuring the translation task into sub-tasks

So I decided to split the task into two pieces:

  1. The first is to extract the information based on a template I provide and return it as a JSON object that I would read into Python as a dictionary.
  2. The second would take just the parsed devotional and additional texts and do a GPT3-based translation for me.

Extract information into a JSON object

To make point 1 happen, I needed to provide a template inside a prompt. Templating out the Ark Channel devotionals, they look like this:

<header> - 'Ark Channel' <date in DDMMYY or DD/MM/YYYY format> <day of the week or 'Sunday Hope'> <book><chapter number><optional modifier>
<quoted verse> (v.<verse_number>)

<devotional_text followed by "今日聖經">

<additional_text after devotional_text, beginning with "*" character>

It is relatively structured but definitely not easily machine parseable with Python code. Furthermore, if I had to code up a parser, I would have to write lots of code for many edge cases, which would be undesirable. Here are some examples of the issues I encountered, each of which would introduce code path forking:

  1. The date may sometimes be written as DDMMYY or DD/MM/YYYY.
  2. Only on Sundays will the 'day of week' field be written as "Sunday Hope"; on other days, it is in Chinese.
  3. There is sometimes an alphanumeric letter at the end of the chapter number to signify that week's edition covers part of a chapter rather than the entire chapter.
  4. The devotional text sometimes includes multiple line breaks with bullet points or numbered lists, and at other times is one single line.
  5. The additional text is sometimes multiple lines long and sometimes a single line.

So, I experimented a bit with the API and made a prompt that returns a structured dictionary with fields correctly populated:

def structure(text: str):
    prompt = f"""The following text has structure:

'<header> - 'Ark Channel' <date in DDMMYY or DD/MM/YYYY format> <day of the week or 'Sunday Hope'> <book><chapter number><optional modifier>
<quoted verse> (v.<verse_number>)

<devotional_text followed by "今日聖經">

<additional_text after devotional_text, beginning with "*" character>'

Parse the text: '{text}' as JSON using snake_case for the keys.
Ensure the keys' verse_number', 'day_of_week_or_sunday_hope', 'header', 'date',
'book', 'chapter_number', 'optional_modifier', 'quoted_verse', and 'devotional_text' are all present.
The 'optional_modifier' is usually '下' or '上', sometimes '中', and is not always present.
Ensure the quoted_verse does not include the verse number.
Ensure no double quotes.
In values, replace all double quotes with single quotes.
Ensure '今日聖經' does not show up in 'devotional_text'.
    response = openai.Completion.create(
    return json.loads(response['choices'][0]['text'].strip("\n"))

As mentioned above, this prompt performs relatively consistently against the test cases I designed. However, if there is a mild change in formatting, I will need to adjust the prompt.

Additionally, the part that needed the most experimentation was the Ensure statements. Before including the Ensure statements, GPT3 would return a JSON string that missed out on keys that needed to be present. However, GPT3 began reliably covering all of the necessary keys in the dictionary after including the' Ensure' statements.

Finally, there were places in Ark Channel where quotation mark usage needed to be more consistent. Sometimes, quotation marks were curly; at other times, they were straight. The parentheses were also sometimes the fixed-width Chinese version; at different times, they were the English font version instead. With the prompt above, I was able to control the usage of quotation marks and parentheses in the translated texts.

As I'll discuss later, GPT3 became (for me) a great Natural Language API. That was pretty incredible.

With this function, the original text above is parsed as:

    'header': '存感恩心,走永生路!',
    'date': '150123',
    'day_of_week_or_sunday_hope': 'Sunday Hope',
    'book': '太',
    'chapter_number': '8',
    'optional_modifier': '下',
    'quoted_verse': '眾人希奇,說:這是怎樣的人 ? 連風和海也聽從他了',
    'verse_number': '27',
    'devotional_text': '恩主從不責備任何人用禱告來打擾祂的安寧,但卻責備人因膽怯而自亂陣腳。',
    'additional_text': '* 經典的詩歌,現代的心靈,如同中水的聲音 - "Holy, Holy, Holy" — Singing at Together for the Gospel'

This is a great start! With it in hand, I could see a path forward to composing the English translation through mapping-based translation for the shorter fields and AI-based translation for the natural language fields. The latter is what the next point is about.

Translate the structured information using GPT-3

To make this happen, I would just need to instruct GPT3 to translate the devotional_text and additional_text, which are the ones that need the most human thought. That is relatively simple, as I can reuse the original translate() function defined above.

Generate images using DALL-E2 for fun (and non-profit)

For fun, I also made two cover images for each Ark Channel edition using the OpenAI DALL-E2 API. This one was easy: using the structured text, I passed in the header value into the following function:

def generate_image(translation):
    OpenAI image generation API (DALL-E 2) given prompt return image URL
    prompt = f"Claude Monet painting of '{translation}'."
    response = openai.Image.create(
    image_url = response['data'][0]['url']
    return image_url

As you can see, I ask for a Claude Monet-style painting as the image. Once we have the image URL, we can display it.

Building a UI for the translation app

Without a UI, my code is not usable by my 'yokefellows', as Sam Kong would call us. While I'm a techie, they are not. I can run code in a notebook, but it would be a huge lift to enable them to use the code in its raw form. Therefore, I decided to build and deploy a Panel app that makes this accessible to them. I chose Panel because I was inspired by Sophia Yang's use of Panel + the OpenAI API (see her recent blog post about it) and because it includes a very flexible layout engine. Its reactive idioms are also Pythonic and, therefore, easy to follow.

Deploying the app on my server

Regarding deployment, I opted to set up a $12/mo Dokku server on DigitalOcean. It has been a while since I last did that, so I felt rusty. In the interest of brevity, I will only delve into a bit of detail here. The tl;dr is that I installed Dokku, figured out how to set up SSL (for HTTPS), and deployed the app from within a Docker container. (I referenced my old essay on deploying static sites and Python apps; writing about stuff one builds is an excellent way of recording knowledge!)

The final result is an app that looks like this:

Ark Channel translator app deployed on DigitalOcean

What's the insight?

From this exercise, I've realized that we can use GPT3 as a natural language API. As an interface, it is less defined than a programming language but is much more flexible and human-like. The amount of experimentation we need to achieve the same results might be similar or even less compared to programming with a Python-based API, especially when it comes to more straightforward tasks, like structuring a JSON from texts with solid patterns.

How about testing the app? Testing and validating natural language APIs is more challenging than with a programming language API, but it is still necessary. With our usual programming languages, such as Python, Julia, or Rust, we can mostly reason through the logic of a program and figure out how to write a general test case. However, with GPT3 prompts as a pseudo-programming language, it takes more work to build a program that generates real-looking data and takes more work to test it logically. As such, it becomes more important to rely on example-based tests, especially those previously known to fail.

What about data validation at runtime? GPT3 can blabber anything, so we still need guardrails. I also needed to write data validators that checked that all required keys were present in the dictionary. If that failed, I would display the error message in the UI within a Status Markdown pane so that I could surface information to myself (the Panel app's primary user and debugger) and strategize a way to fix the issue.

What about my bilingual skills? Did using GPT3 obviate the need for my skills? Not at all. Instead of using my bilingual skills to create translations, I ended up using my bilingual skills to verify the machine translations for correctness. But, of course, I would still edit the translations if they were off, slightly or egregiously.

Finally, there's the lesson on compositionality. This is the same lesson outlined on Twitter by Jungwon (from Ought, the builders of Elicit, a research tool that I wish I had during my doctoral training days).

Instead of feeding the full text of the devotional and asking GPT3 to do a translation of the full text alone, breaking up the text into sub-components made it easier to translate while preserving the desired formatting that we wanted. Instead of designing a prompt to satisfy both goals, I could create simpler sub-tasks for the model and combine them again. Doing so saved me GPT3 API call tokens (which equals money!) and the headache of designing complicated prompts.


So I spent quite a bit of time building this tool for myself. What's the impact here?

Previously, I would spend about 10-15 minutes translating each Ark Channel daily devotional entry. With my home-built GPT3-based translation tool, I can finish translations in 2 minutes. That's anywhere from 5-7 times faster than before. Furthermore, with it deployed to my DigitalOcean Dokku server, I can make it available to my fellow Ark Channel translators worldwide.

But there are more benefits here. Translation takes mental energy, and there's an activation energy barrier to getting it done. On days with lower energy levels than usual, I would delay translation, sometimes causing a downstream chain reaction by slowing other Ark Channel translators. (All devotionals are sent in strict order.) Having a machine do a high-quality translation that I can edit massively reduces the barrier to getting it done.


This exercise in building an app that used GPT3 was incredibly informative for me. Designing prompts is not easy and takes experimentation, but it wasn't the hardest part to get right. Within the broader picture of the translator, GPT3 was merely one component. As written by Davis Treybig, UX was the thing I needed to pay the most attention to here. When GPT3 failed, and it will, having a way to inspect internal data structures made a night-and-day difference in my ability to debug what was going wrong live. With GPT3 and its successor models, I'm confident we can unlock new capabilities in many places!

P.S. In case you were wondering where the app is located... I don't plan to share the URL publicly. That's because my credit card is on the line and I have no authentication walls to prevent bad actors from abusing the app!

Cite this blog post:
    author = {Eric J. Ma},
    title = {Building a Translation App with GPT-3: The Story Behind My Creation},
    year = {2023},
    month = {02},
    day = {05},
    howpublished = {\url{}},
    journal = {Eric J. Ma's Blog},
    url = {},

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