Real Time Translation Tech has Arrived

January 7, 2015

8:00 am

Science fiction has long depicted fantasy translation technology which will translate our words into another language as we speak them. Skype’s new translator service has finally made that dream a reality. At present it can only deal with Spanish and English and is only available in an invitation-only beta trail version. Testers say that the service doesn’t work if you speak naturally, but that you have to speak very clearly without pausing in order to prevent the machine translation from kicking in and interrupting you.

A BBC journalist who tested the software revealed there are still some problems. A Spanish speaker said “Esta manana ha estado trabajando un poco poco y concertando citas para ver a mis amigos esta tarde.” Which was translated in English as this: “This morning has been working a little bit and arranging appointments to see my friends this afternoon.”

Although imperfect, it is undeniably impressive. The translation software seems to make fewer mistakes than the voice recognition software which can mistake words like “called” for “cold”. Vikram Dendi, Microsoft’s lead engineer on the project, explained that combining these different technologies is a tricky process – “each technology on its own is pretty complex; putting them together is a very difficult problem.”

The translation technology sources existing translations from around the web. It depends on the skills of linguists but in so doing it may one day put them out of business. Ever-improving translation technology has never really posed a threat to professional translators who know that the nuances of language learning are beyond any algorithm or software’s capabilities. Professor Nigel Vincent, president at The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, said that technology can never replace real professional translation, and that bilingualism becomes a more valuable skill the higher up the chain of business you go.

But many of the people who previously depended on professional translation services might not care about these details and could be perfectly contented with a real time translation technology solution. It really depends on what you are using the service for. If you are just chatting to a friend you met on holiday who doesn’t speak English very well, then it is hardly worth your time hiring a professional translator, so a service like this is amazing. But it might not be long before similar real time translation services become so efficient and accurate that they phase out human translators altogether! Or at least in the world of business.

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