Speaking in tongues: translation technology comes of age

Online and smartphone technology is making light work of translation

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Tech translation tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated – or, as they say in Haitian Creole: “Zouti teknolojik tradiksyon yo vin deplizanpli sofistike.” That last bit comes courtesy of Google Translate rather than my own limited language skills.

I have often used Google’s online service website to translate text, copying and pasting news articles in various languages to make some English sense of them.

The accuracy of what is produced has improved substantially over time, but nowadays I rarely need to visit it. Using Google’s Chrome web browser, a message appears every time I call up a foreign-language website, identifying it and offering a translated version of the whole page in an instant.

When it comes to searching for the mot juste for something being written in French – or German, Spanish or Portuguese, for that matter – Linguee.com is a good option.

The service has indexed millions of online translations produced by professionals. Searching for a word or phrase in English brings it up in a column containing numerous examples of the context in which it has been used, such as a paragraph in a legal document or a news report. A second column shows the translation of this paragraph into French or one of the other languages.

A pie chart indicates how frequently a particular translation has been used compared with others, which helps narrow down the options to the most apposite phrase. Linguee also offers easy access to its service through Firefox and Internet Explorer search boxes and a Mac dashboard widget.

A smartphone app is the obvious choice to replace a phrase book when travelling, and Google has come up trumps again with its Android applications. The latest version of Translate on the phone allows you to speak your phrase in English and see the text appear both in English and in the chosen language on the screen. Tapping on a loudspeaker icon renders the phrase as speech.

The app was demonstrated during the keynote speech by Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin in September. A conversation was conducted between an English-speaking “shopper” and a German-speaking “shoe salesman” with the phone as an interlocutor. It was a little stilted – it took three attempts for the spoken German for “What colour do you want?” to be understood and translated properly – but the possibilities were there for all to see.

Schmidt said a live simultaneous translation was the next logical step and may happen in the future.

Google even has a solution for conversing with objects such as street signs, using the Google Goggles app and a smartphone camera. It allows you to take a picture of the incomprehensible item and then uses optical character recognition technology to figure out the letters and language before it offers a translation.

Qualcomm, the mobile phone chipmaker, has shown me a similar app, still in development, that uses an augmented reality technique. When the smartphone camera was pointed at a menu in Korean, its display outlined the choices on the menu and delivered the English translation next to them on the screen as the camera panned across the different items.

For the iPhone, Word Lens from Quest Visual is already available and offers similar capabilities in the Latin script, although it is limited at present to displaying English and Spanish.

At this rate, we will soon have no need for language learning tools, but there are still plenty of options available on mobile phones and online.

Rosetta Stone offers software packages teaching a variety of languages, starting at $200 or more, but has recently launched a $10 iPhone app called Discover French. It features the company’s “Speech Activation” technology, which employs speech recognition to ensure correct pronunciation and build confidence in speaking a foreign language.

For those wanting less formal language training, I came across Voxy.com, an online service, at the TechCrunch Disrupt start-up conference held in New York in the autumn.

Voxy makes learning a language interesting and topical by showing current news, sports and entertainment stories. For Spanish speakers, a story in English about the actress Salma Hayek contains highlighted words and phrases such as “gave an interview”. Clicking on a highlighted item puts it into a “word bank” to the right of the story, where it can be selected to view an English pronunciation and to see the phrase in Spanish. There is also a quiz to test comprehension of the article.

There are other games and challenges to help build vocabulary and understanding, and a “life skills” section presents real-life situations such as opening a bank account. Voxy’s web service should be available soon as iPhone and Android apps.

Finally, what better way of learning a language than from a native speaker? Livemocha.com makes this possible with its peer-to-peer language learning.

When I last wrote about it about two years ago, it had just passed 1m members. But its website now claims to provide free and paid online lessons in 35 languages to 6m members in 200 countries. Users help each other by correcting writing and pronunciation. They can also produce “flash card” lists of useful words and phrases in their languages. As members review and rate the work of others, they allow them to accumulate points and eventually gain “teacher” status, helping them earn money from online tutoring.

LiveMocha has also linked up two educational publishers – Pearson, the owner of the Financial Times, and Collins – for language learning content.

And that’s a wrap for this personal tech guide for polyglot MBAs, or “das ist ein Umbruch”, as they say in German – courtesy of Linguee.

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