Voice recognition is iffy, at best, but Google apparently thinks its Translate app can do a good enough job to be a useful conversational tool for people who speak different languages. Mistranslations and cultural faux pas will be unavoidable. It’s “not Star Trek, where you have a universal translator,” noted Frost & Sullivan’s Mukul Krishna, “but it’s definitely a step towards that.”
Google soon will update its Translate mobile app to render words spoken in popular languages into written text, according to The New York Times.
This feature is already available for some major languages in the Google Chrome browser.
In essence, the update will let two people converse in their own native tongues by listening to both and automatically translating their words into each other’s language, Android Police reported in December.
It wasn’t clear how the system would work, however. No mention was made of speech-to-text translation at that time.
Google would incorporate the Word Lens app, AndroidPolice said, which translates text and signs from other languages when a smartphone’s camera is trained on them.
Google acquired Quest Visual, which created Word Lens, last year.
Google Translate mobile “is a very interesting application,” and the upgrade will give it “a whole lot of interesting possibilities in law enforcement, government, at the DMV … and put Google in a good position to further monetize,” said Mukul Krishna, a senior global director at Frost & Sullivan.
Speaking in Tongues
Google’s Translate app reportedly has been installed more than 100 million times on Android phones.
It’s said to have 500 million active users every month across all Google’s platforms — meaning it is not just confined to mobile users.
Google Translate offers written translations of 90 languages and the ability to hear spoken translations of a few popular languages, although there’s no definition of what is meant by “popular” in this case.
In voice mode, it would translate a word or phrase uttered by the user into the supported language selected and play back the utterance in that language.
The app initially supported English, Spanish, German, French, Italian and simplified Chinese. It now supports more than 45 languages.
Another voice translation mobile apps is Vocre, which supports 38 languages.
The Business Case for Translation Apps
“There are clearly some big opportunities here, especially in service-based industries,” said Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
Government agencies, which “spend millions of dollars annually on translators,” constitute a possible market, as does the intelligence community, he told TechNewsWorld.
However, fields where precision trumps cost, such as healthcare, will “likely still rely on human-based translation services,” Castro noted.
AT&T also offers a translation app, Spectra — a speech-to-speech translation system in the cloud.
It automatically identifies the language used and can translate English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.
Spectra runs on any iOS device.
How’s Your Mother?
Mistranslations abound, and subtexts can be tricky. For example a question that could be quite innocent in other cultures — such as an inquiry after a person’s mother — might have an insulting connotation in the U.S.
Translators often lack subtlety. For example, Google’s English translation of the French phrase “je ne sais quoi” is “whatever.” The phrase means “a certain something,” according to Wiktionary.
The difference is considerable, as any parent of a teenager who has said “whatever,” accompanied with an eye roll, knows.
Mistranslations “are a problem everyone’s going to have,” Frost’s Krishna told TechNewsWorld.
However, machine translations, which Microsoft and Google are using, are helping to close the gap.
The Google Translate mobile app “is not Star Trek, where you have a universal translator,” Krishna said, “but it’s definitely a step towards that, where you begin making the move from being noncommunicative to at least being able to communicate.”
By Richard Adhikari