Facebook Research: Unsupervised translation of programming languages

This post was originally published by Baptiste Roziere, Marie-Anne Lachaux, Lowik Chanussot, Guillaume Lample on Facebook Research


A transcompiler, also known as source-to-source translator, is a system that converts source code from a high-level programming language (such as C++ or Python) to another. Transcompilers are primarily used for interoperability, and to port codebases written in an obsolete or deprecated language (e.g. COBOL, Python 2) to a modern one. They typically rely on handcrafted rewrite rules, applied to the source code abstract syntax tree. Unfortunately, the resulting translations often lack readability, fail to respect the target language conventions, and require manual modifications in order to work properly. The overall translation process is time-consuming and requires expertise in both the source and target languages, making code-translation projects expensive. Although neural models significantly outperform their rule-based counterparts in the context of natural language translation, their applications to transcompilation have been limited due to the scarcity of parallel data in this domain. In this paper, we propose to leverage recent approaches in unsupervised machine translation to train a fully unsupervised neural transcompiler. We train our model on source code from open source GitHub projects, and show that it can translate functions between C++, Java, and Python with high accuracy. Our method relies exclusively on monolingual source code, requires no expertise in the source or target languages, and can easily be generalized to other programming languages. We also build and release a test set composed of 852 parallel functions, along with unit tests to check the correctness of translations. We show that our model outperforms rule-based commercial baselines by a significant margin.


A transcompiler, transpiler, or source-to-source compiler, is a translator which converts between programming languages that operate at a similar level of abstraction. Transcompilers differ from traditional compilers that translate source code from a high-level to a lower-level programming language (e.g. assembly language) to create an executable. Initially, transcompilers were developed to port source code between different platforms (e.g. convert source code designed for the Intel 8080 processor to make it compatible with the Intel 8086). More recently, new languages have been developed (e.g. CoffeeScript, TypeScript, Dart, Haxe) along with dedicated transcompilers that convert them into a popular or omnipresent language (e.g. JavaScript). These new languages address some shortcomings of the target language by providing new features such as list comprehension
(CoffeeScript), object-oriented programming and type checking (TypeScript), while detecting errors and providing optimizations. Unlike traditional programming languages, these new languages are ∗Equal contribution. The order was determined randomly.

34th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS 2020), Vancouver, Canada. designed to be translated with a perfect accuracy (i.e. the compiled language does not require manual adjustments to work properly). In this paper, we are more interested in the traditional type of transcompilers, where typical use cases are to translate an existing codebase written in an obsolete or deprecated language (e.g. COBOL, Python 2) to a recent one, or to integrate code written in a different language to an existing codebase.

Migrating an existing codebase to a modern or more efficient language like Java or C++ requires expertise in both the source and target languages, and is often costly. For instance, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia spent around $750 million and 5 years of work to convert its platform from COBOL to Java. Using a transcompiler and manually adjusting the output source code may be a faster and cheaper solution than rewriting the entire codebase from scratch. In natural language, recent advances in neural machine translation have been widely accepted, even among professional translators, who rely more and more on automated machine translation systems. A similar phenomenon could be observed in programming language translation in the future.

Translating source code from one Turing-complete language to another is always possible in theory. Unfortunately, building a translator is difficult in practice: different languages can have a different syntax and rely on different platform APIs and standard-library functions. Currently, the majority of transcompilation tools are rule-based; they essentially tokenize the input source code and convert it into an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) on which they apply handcrafted rewrite rules. Creating them requires a lot of time, and advanced knowledge in both the source and target languages. Moreover, translating from a dynamically-typed language (e.g. Python) to a statically-typed language (e.g. Java) requires to infer the variable types which is difficult (and not always possible) in itself.

The applications of neural machine translation (NMT) to programming languages have been limited so far, mainly because of the lack of parallel resources available in this domain. In this paper, we propose to apply recent approaches in unsupervised machine translation, by leveraging large amount of monolingual source code from GitHub to train a model, TransCoder, to translate between three popular languages: C++, Java and Python. To evaluate our model, we create a test set of 852 parallel functions, along with associated unit tests. Although never provided with parallel data, the model manages to translate functions with a high accuracy, and to properly align functions from the standard library across the three languages, outperforming rule-based and commercial baselines by a significant margin. Our approach is simple, does not require any expertise in the source or target languages, and can easily be extended to most programming languages. Although not perfect, the model could help to reduce the amount of work and the level of expertise required to successfully translate a codebase. The main contributions of the paper are the following:

  • We introduce a new approach to translate functions from a programming language to another, that is purely based on monolingual source code.
  • We show that TransCoder successfully manages to grasp complex patterns specific to each language, and to translate them to other languages.
  • We show that a fully unsupervised method can outperform commercial systems that leverage rule-based methods and advanced programming knowledge.
  • We build and release a validation and a test set composed of 852 parallel functions in 3 languages, along with unit tests to evaluate the correctness of generated translations.
  • We will make our code and pretrained models publicly available.

To see the full paper click the link below.

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