It started with the news that Skype will be offering real-time translation for users speaking English and Spanish. Now, Google has joined the universal translator club as it tries to do Microsoft one better. According to a report in the New York Times on Sunday, Google will offer real-time translation for speakers of 90 languages.
The development could prove to be a revolutionary step in the field of human communications. Users will be able to speak to people in foreign languages, and have their responses converted to English text. For a few of the most popular languages, users will have the option of hearing spoken translations instead.
Learning from Mistakes
The feature is set to be included in a forthcoming update to Google’s translation app for smartphones. After the update, the app will also be able to automatically detect the language that a speaker is using. Both speakers will need headsets for the app to work correctly, however, and the translations work best when both parties pause between responses, according to the New York Times.
Although Google’s plan represents a big step, it is not the company’s first foray into the world of translation. On the contrary, Google has been rolling out improvements to its translation abilities for years. Users already have the ability to view automatic translations of Web sites written in other languages on Google’s Chrome Web browser.
And its Google Translate page has given users the ability to type in text from dozens of languages and get translations almost instantly. Google is also working on a separate app that will allow users to translate texts by snapping an image of the text to be translated, a potentially lifesaving feature for overseas tourists, according to the report.
The technology is still far from perfect, with several errors in grammar and word choices occurring regularly, according to the New York Times. Nevertheless, the app has machine learning capabilities, meaning that it should improve every time one of its translation choices is corrected by a human user.
Large Ecosystem of Users
“Building a successful language translation application has numerous pitfalls and is a risky endeavor that can easily alienate users if not done correctly,” Tejas Mehta, mobile analyst for Parks Associates, told us. “Companies like Microsoft and Google are in the best position to be successful in this area because of the large ecosystem of users. Translation applications get better with use and the network effects are extremely important for these applications.”
Microsoft is using the same strategy to improve Skype’s translation service, according to the report. Currently, only a few thousand people are using its Spanish-English real-time translation services. As the service improves, Microsoft hopes to roll that service out to almost 40,000 additional users.
Several thousand others have signed up to try the service when it comes to languages such as Chinese and Russian. Meanwhile, more than 100 million people have downloaded Google's translation app to their smartphones, according to the search engine giant.
“Another important consideration that affects the performance of these applications is ‘context,’” Mehta told us. “As more and more devices become connected, these applications will be able to leverage the data from these devices to provide contextually relevant translation, which will greatly enhance the value proposition of these applications.”