With Microsoft making its Skype Translator preview freely available earlier this month, things are getting interesting indeed on the voice translation front.
The move puts Microsoft a step ahead of Google, whose translation service isn’t really geared for real-time conversation, as Skype Translator is. But Google is getting close. Whereas its Google Translator app originally translated only text, it can now take spoken words and “speak” them back in another target language.
While that makes Google Translate handy for, say, an English-speaking tourist trying to order a meal in a Paris restaurant, it’s not really a solution for translating a phone conversation in real time, which is what the Skype Translator aims to do. Still, it stands to reason that Google will eventually add the same technology to Google Voice and/or Google Hangouts – and my guess would be sooner rather than later.
All of this is really an extension of the advances in voice-to-text technology that we wrote about previously; now we’re just seeing it taken to the next level. And both examples are nothing short of remarkable when you consider they are free.
Skype Translator Features and Functions
With Skype Translator, you place a call via Skype as usual, either to another Skype user or to any other phone number. The conversation is translated in near real-time, much like it would be with a human translator – in both directions.
What’s more, you get an on-screen transcript of the call, which I can imagine would be quite helpful, so you can easily see where the translation may be missing the mark.
As of now, the service is available for Windows 8.1 devices and supports four languages: English, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin, with the latter two new in phase two. It also supports translation of instant messages in 50 languages, “from Arabic to Yucatec Maya” as Microsoft says.
Critics Question Quality and Language Choices in Skype Translator
Predictably, some are taking Microsoft to task because the app is less than perfect. This bit from a blog post on HuffPost Tech is one example:
One of the main issues faced by translation technology meant for public consumption is literal translation which makes idioms and colloquialisms completely nonsensical. It would be a fair assumption that Microsoft would have ironed out such issues by phase two of their preview. As this is a usual complaint about free translation technology, and the reason businesses prefer paid translation services, it is surprising that Microsoft unveiled it's preview without properly fixing these glitches.
I would say it is not at all surprising that Microsoft unveiled the preview without “properly fixing these glitches.” By its nature, the preview is like a beta test, intended to get the product into the hands of real users and learn more about what works well, what needs improvement and any bugs.
And with translation technology, there’s all the more reason to get it out and let people have at it because there’s simply no substitution for real, live use. You’ve probably noticed that technology such as Siri has gotten better over time, and certainly improves the more an individual user employs it. Undoubtedly, Microsoft will gain lots of valuable insight from the Skype Translator preview that will make the finished product that much better.
Critics also cite the choice of languages as curious, with the HuffPost blogger noting that Microsoft included German when they originally demonstrated the service but did not include it in either preview. And French, the blogger noted, is spoken in half of Africa.
It’s hard to quibble with Mandarin, Spanish and English, given they’re the three most popular languages in the world in terms of native speakers (at least according to Wikipedia). The choice of Italian over German or French does seem curious, as I would think either of the latter two would be used more in business – the likely target market for Skype Translator. Maybe the Italian conversion engine was simply further along.
Google Translator – a Step Behind in Business, at Least for Now
The Skype Translator preview puts Microsoft ahead of Google in the translation game, but Google has been taking strides.
Earlier this year the company added features that enable Google Translate app users to take a photo using their device, then have the text on the photo translated. That’s handy for travelers trying to interpret signs, for example. It works in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Russian.
Then there’s the “conversation mode” mentioned earlier, where the user taps the mic in the app and starts speaking. Tap again and the app speaks your words back to you – or your waiter, or barista, or what-have-you – in another language.
The app is pretty clearly targeted at consumers, at least for now. But again, it would be hard to believe Google isn’t at work putting all the technology behind the app to work for business use.