The Universal Translator is one step closer to reality. One awesome and frustrating step. The Google Translate mobile app, now available on iOS as well as Android platforms is the sort of technology we’ve all been waiting for since we first saw Star Trek. Simply by speaking into your phone you can have your words translated and then spoken aloud in a different language to someone else. The person you are talking to can do the same in reverse. And what do you have to pay for this proto-universal translator? That’s the best part, it’s completely free. Amazing. Google Translate currently works in 57 languages of which 15 are available for speech to text and 23 languages available for text to speech. Go and download the app right now. Seriously, go do it now. Just be prepared: as wonderfully freeing as this technology could be, it is very far from perfect. This app hints at, but does not completely deliver on, the universal translator we will want in the future.
The following videos demonstrate the use of Google Translate for Android and iPhone respectively. You can see the original presentation of the ‘conversation mode’ feature by Google in our previous discussion.
For the past 24 hours I’ve been doing little more than playing with Google Translate on my iPhone. I may have kept my wife up at night. I may have apologized in translated Hungarian, Japanese, and Haitian Creole. I may have received glaring looks of death. It’s hard to remember.
What I can tell you from all this testing is that the translations on the app are amazing. Simply wonderful. You can give the program fairly high level words (‘adumbrate’, ‘evanescent’, etc, etc) or ambiguous phrases (“This thing is not the thing I ordered from the other thing”) and get the right translations. As Google has proven time and time again in its online tools, the search engine’s statistical approach to the task is both powerful and flexible.
Yet it’s the voice to voice capability that really drives our desire for a universal translator and it is here that things begin to break down for the mobile app. The program takes your speech, converts it to text, translates, and then converts the translated text to speech. The latter three parts work well. The first is a frustrating quagmire of pronunciation fueled guilt. No matter how much I articulate, no matter how carefully I space my words, it’s rare for the app to capture what I say perfectly. Working with Google Translate can feel like talking to your aged aunt who is deaf in one ear. Having to repeat the same simple phrase four times to be understood can be damnably frustrating.
Google makes up for this with several useful features. You can edit the text of your speech in case the program didn’t understand what you wanted to say. Phrases can be starred so that they are saved and easily accessible to be used later. The text translation can be displayed in a full screen mode to make it easier for others to read. As it is, I could rely on the Google Translate app while traveling, but I would still need some of my own language skills in order to get by. The app is great, but it’s not a universal translator.
Perhaps more patience is needed. As we’ve seen with Watson and other forays into real language comprehension, understanding human intent is still a difficult task for machines. Speech to text will get better as we move ahead, and as it does Google will undoubtedly improve upon its mobile app. At the same time they will likely expand their list of available languages and features. (Hopefully we’ll get ‘conversation mode’ on iOS soon.) The Google Translate app has irked me these past hours with its failings, but overall I am still absolutely delighted by its presence. A good, not perfect, proto-universal translator is available for free on your mobile devices. 2011 is shaping up to be an extraordinary time in history. Who knows how quickly this technology will take off in the years ahead. Google Translate gives me hope that one day the language barrier will no longer divide humanity. Beyond that, who knows what might happen…