Transitioning the Translation Barrier

Translation-Ireland

Last month, Skype, Microsoft’s video calling service, initiated simultaneous translation between English and Spanish speakers. Not to be outdone, Google will soon announce updates to its translation app for phones. Google Translate now offers written translation of 90 languages and the ability to hear spoken translations of a few popular languages. In the update, the app will automatically recognize if someone is speaking a popular language and automatically turn it into written text.

Certainly, the technology of changing one language to another is rather difficult. The Skype service also requires a headset and works best if a speaker paused to hear what the other person had said. Sometimes the translation doesn’t work directly from one language to another.

However, those language mistakes are a critical part of how online products get better. The services improve with use, as tinkering with so-called machine learning by computers examines outcomes and adjusts performance. It is how the online spell check feature became dependable, and how search, map directions and many other online services progress.

Just a few thousand people are using the service on Skype. As it learns from them, it will bring in more of the nearly 40,000 people waiting to try the Spanish-English service. Even in these early days, it elicits the possibility of social studies classes with children in the United States and Mexico, or journalism where you can live chat with a family in Syria.

Google says its Translate app has been installed more than 100 million times on Android phones, most of which could receive the upgrade. They have 500 million active users of Translate every month, across all our platforms. With 80-90% of the web in just 10 languages, translation becomes a critical part of learning for many people.

Automatic translation of web pages into some major languages is already a feature on Google’s Chrome browser. There are also 140 languages in which it is possible to change things like Gmail.

Microsoft’s Bing Translation engine is used on Twitter and Facebook. Facebook, which also features communication across the borders of language by operating the world’s largest photo sharing service, also has its own translation efforts. It has also signed up thousands of people to a waiting list for Skype to offer other simultaneously translated languages, like Chinese and Russian.

Feeding the “corpus,” as linguistics engineers call their database of language, has become critical for some countries as well as for the sake of machine learning. Google, which uses human translation to initiate its service, recently added Kazakh after a government official went on television to ask people to help out.

Still, some experts worry as machines look more deeply at individual uses of meaning through things like intonation and humor. What will it mean if, as with our search terms and our Facebook “likes,” these become fodder for advertisers and law enforcement?

Currently, just 1% of consumers consent to having their data recorded. That is what people do when they help machine learning of translation, or when they use voice-based assistants like Siri. Individuals will become better at managing their own privacy, and not outsourcing it to the providers of services. But for now, all kinds of information is surrendered for convenience.

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