Thursday, October 16, 2014

Not so lost in translation

translate icon by misterbisson, on Flickr
CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by misterbisson
The universal translator is on every science fiction fan's wish list but it looks as if we're getting close to a breakthrough, at least between the major languages of the world. An article and film report from CNN, Taking a cue from science fiction, Microsoft demos 'universal translator', shows how Microsoft's voice translator technology is being implemented by Skype and the word is that some kind of pilot service will be launched in the near future. Of course they're not alone in their search for the next potential golden goose of technology; Google are also working hard developing their already successful Google Translate into voice recognition.

According to Gurdeep Pall, Corporate VP of Skype:

The idea that people don't understand each other, it's going to be a thing of the past,... In the same way it's hard to imagine a world before you were able to travel to different places and quickly, whether it be in a car or a plane, we'll never think about, wow, those were the dark ages where people couldn't understand each other. That's where we're headed.

The film below features a demonstration of Skype translating very well between English and German and if it can deliver that level of accuracy the market will be enormous. The text translations provided by Microsoft and Google can now provide readable versions as long as you stick to the major European languages. As soon as you stray outside the mainstream of English, French, Spanish, German and possibly Italian the translations can sometimes still lapse into incomprehensibility. I doubt if the voice translation will be as good as text but for a few languages it could well be good enough. I suspect that this will be a premium rate service once it is fully launched.

I still think we're a long way from replacing a professional simultaneous interpreter who will still be needed when the stakes are high and misunderstandings are to be avoided at all costs. However in many meetings and discussions an interpreter is far too costly or completely impractical so technology could be the next best thing. Of course many people are gifted in languages but when one of the parties in the discussion is forced to use a language they are not proficient in it can result in just as many, if not more, misunderstandings as voice translator technology.

Anyway, so far so good. Judge for yourself by watching the CNN report here with Richard Quest:

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