open source statistical hierarchical phrase-based machine translation system
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Sparse features

Historically, most decoders have had only on the order of tens of features whose weights are tuned in a linear model. Recently, the introduction of large-scale discriminative tuners have enabled decoders to use many, many more features. Efficiently decoding with large feature sets requires sparse feature representations that are a bit more general than a set of more-or-less hard-coded feature sets of the past, that perhaps mostly varied by the number of features associated with rules in the grammar.

Joshua uses a sparse feature implementation backed by hash tables for all features in the decoder. Features are triggered and grouped together with feature functions, each of which can contribute an arbitrary number of features to the decoder, and a separate weight is expected for each. Feature functions serve to group together logically related features, and typically assign related feature a common prefix. For example, the weights on grammar rules read from the model each have separate weights and are handled by the PhraseModel(NAME) feature function, which assigns the features the names tm_NAME_0, tm_name_1, and so on. Similarly, the TargetBigram feature might emit features such as TargetBigram_<s>_I and TargetBigram_others_say.

Joshua loads its features using reflection, so adding a new feature requires you only to create a single file and at minimum override a single function.

Efficiency considerations

For efficiency reasons, it is important not to store the entire accumulated feature vector at each edge in the hypergraph. Instead, during decoding, each edge stores only the features incurred by that rule, and the entire feature vector can be reconstructed by following backpointers. Actually, each edge only stores the inner product of the delta, i.e., the score incurred by taking the dot product of the weight vector with the features incurred by that hyperedge. This decreases decoding time measurably, although at a cost of increasing the amount of time it takes to do k-best extraction (when the feature vectors must be recomputed at every edge and sparse vectors accumulated).

Feature Function interface

Feature functions are arranged into the following hierarchy, found in $JOSHUA/src:

+ decoder
  + ff
    FeatureFunction (interface)
    +- StatelessFF (abstract class)
    +- StatefulFF (abstract class)

FeatureFunction is an abstract class which provides some basic functionality, such as the ability to parse arguments passed into each feature function. StatelessFF and StatefulFF are subclasses that provide further details fore ach kind of function. Stateful features contribute state. This is usually because they are functions of the (hypothesized) decoder output, and therefore require that the dynamic programming state of the decoding algorithm be extended with sufficient information to compute them. For example, the target-side language model must maintain enough target words to compute language model probabilities when states are combined as the result of applying new rules. Stateless do not contribute state. They depend only on the basic information needed for CKY parsing: the span of the input, the rule being applied, and the rule's antecedents or tail nodes. They can also be functions of the entire input, since that is fixed. Basically, this is any portion of the input sentence of portions of the hypergraph that have already been assembled (and can therefore be assumed to be fixed along with the input). Examples of stateless feature functions include an OOV penalty (which counts untranslatable words) and the WordPenalty feature (which counts the number of words). Functionally, the interface for both types is the same; a Stateless FF is simply one that returns null when asked to compute a new state. The complete interface can be found in the documentation for joshua.decoder.ff.FeatureFunction.

There are four important functions, and most feature functions implement just one or two of them:

  1. compute(rule, tailNodes, i, j, sentence, accumulator)

    This is the main function, called when a new hyperedge is created using rule and applied to a set of tail nodes over a span (i,j). The accumulator is an abstraction that accumulates the zero or more feature values contributed by this feature function on this edge. It allows the decoder to store only the weighted dot product on each edge instead of all the features and their values (the individual feature values can be recovered later if needed during k-best extraction).

  1. estimateCost(rule, sentence)

    This function returns a weighted estimate of the cost of a rule, and is used when rules are sorted during cube pruning. For example, the language model can compute the probabilities of any complete n-grams on the target side of the rule. Also, some functions can compute the entire cost, if they are functions only of the rule (and are therefore precomputable). The score is not retained; it is only used for sorting rules.

  1. computeFinal(tailNode, i, j, sentence)

    Hypotheses over the whole sentences are gathered together under a single top-level node in the hypergraph, which is created with a null rule. This is done, for example, to permit the language model to compute prefix probabilities for the beginning of the sentence. For most feature functions, nothing need be done here.

  1. estimateFutureCost(rule, state, sentence)

    This allows a feature function to compute an estimate of the future cost of the rule, also used for sorting. This function is basically not used; future estimates are hard in MT, and the way hypotheses are grouped makes them a bit less important.

New feature functions should extend either StatelessFF or StatefulFF, depending on whether they contribute state. These also provide defaults for functions 2--4, which means that you can write a new feature function by overriding a single function.

Joshua includes both phrase-based and hierarchical decoding algorithms, but the underlying hypergraph format is shared between them. This means that feature functions can be defined once and work for both types of MT models (with one small caveat, discussed below).

Notes on Stateful feature functions

Stateful feature functions need to handle a few things that don't concern stateless feature functions.

  • Compute and return a state object.

    The state object should usually be a public child class of your feature function. It inherits from joshua.decoder.ff.state_maintenance, and defines how to hash states and what is means for two states to be equal.

  • Be aware of the state index.

    When creating a stateful feature function, a global state index is incremented. This is available to all stateful feature functions as stateIndex. Each node in the hypergraph retains a list of the dynamic programming states for all stateful feature functions. In order to get these states (which are presumably needed to compute new states), you'll need access to the index. e.g.,


    will return the state object computed by an earlier call for the current state.

See joshua.decoder.ff.TargetBigram for an example of a simple stateful feature function.

Implementing a new feature function

Feature functions in Joshua are instantiated by reflection. This means that adding a new feature function is as simple as creating a single class that implements the above interface, and then activating it in the configuration file. No special code needs to be created to instantiate these objects properly.

  • Create the feature function class. This will likely go in $JOSHUA/src/joshua/decoder/ff if it is just a single file. If you have more files to add, create a subdirectory and put it there to keep things neat. Your feature function should inherit from either StatelessFF or StatefulFF.
  • Feature functions are triggered by a line of the form
    feature_function = NAME [ARGS]
    where NAME is the name keying your feature function and ARGS denote optional arguments for the feature. The name should match the class name (and is case sensitive) to enable reflection to work. ARGS should be of the format "-key1 value -key2 value ...". These are processed by FeatureFunction::parseArgs() and made available to each feature function in a hash map named parsedArgs. Use this to setup the function.
  • Override the compute() function. A feature function can contribute zero or more feature values per hyperedge. For each feature it computes, it should call accumulator.add(KEY, VALUE), where KEY is the feature name and VALUE its value. The decoder will match the keys to the weights vector later when computing the weighted cost of each edge.
  • Each feature function is passed three arguments: the global weights vector (of type FeatureVector), the JoshuaConfiguration object, which contains all config file and command-line options, and the list of feature arguments, discussed in the previous bullet point. The weights vector is basically a hash table of named features and their weights. Your feature can simply query the hash table to find out the weights assigned to its features. Feature names must be globally unique, so the convention is to prepend your feature name to any weights is computes, as mentioned above.
  • To use the new feature function, simply activate it, either in the config file:
    feature-function = NewFeatureFunction -arg1 value -arg2 value ...
    or from the command line
    $JOSHUA/bin/joshua-decoder -feature-function "NewFeatureFunction -arg1 val ..."


Feature functions contribute zero or more weights to each edge, via the compute() function. Feature names are global. In order to avoid name collisions, the names of the set of features computed by each function should be prefixed by that feature's name. For example, the phrase table weights are named tm_owner_0, tm_owner_1, and so on. A rule bigram feature might use feature names TargetBigram_<s>_I, TargetBigram_taco_bell, etc.


See the file $JOSHUA/src/joshua/decoder/ff/ for a well-documented example feature.

Phrase-based versus Hierarchial features

Both decoders share the same hypergraph format; the phrase-based decoder simply treats every phrase as a left-branch rule. It also removes the constraint that spans need to be contiguous. Therefore, the i variable passed to compute(...) does not contain any useful information. j denotes the source index endpoint of the last phrase applied.

Therefore, the only concern that arises is if needs to use the source index in the function value computation. Features that don't can be shared across both decoders. By convention, phrases that only make sense for the phrase-based decoder are placed in the joshua.decoder.ff.phrase package.

Existing stateless feature functions

Here is a list of feature functions that exist in Joshua.

  • WordPenalty. Each target language word incurs a penalty of -0.435 (-log_10(e)).
  • PhraseModel. One of these is defined for each distinct grammar "owner" (part of the grammar initialization line). The "owner" concept allows grammars to share weights or have distinct weight sets. Features have the name tm_OWNER_INDEX.
  • ArityPhrasePenalty. This feature is parameterized by min, max, and owner, and it fires on application of rules with arity (= rank = number of nonterminals on the righthand side) between min and max, inclusive, belonging to grammars with the specified owner.
  • OOVPenalty. This feature fires each time an OOV is entered into the chart.
  • SourcePath. This feature contains the weight of the source word (for support of weighted lattices).

Stateful Feature Functions

This is a list of stateful feature functions.

  • LanguageModelFF. One of these is instantiated for each language model listed in the configuration file, with weights assigned as lm_0, lm_1, and so on.
  • TargetBigram. This function counts bigrams that are created when a rule is applied.
  • EdgePhraseSimilarityFF. This function contacts a server to compute the similarity of a rule with a set of paraphrases.