We rely on computers for many things, but given the imperfection of first generations of translation software, foreign language translation hasn’t typically been one of them. When it comes to complex grammar structures, machine translation has often led us with sometimes laughably bizarre results (“I to the place of bath go would like”). In a business setting, it often simply sounds unprofessional, so many companies and organizations continue to rely on human translators.
Science fiction has long promised us devices – sometimes even wearable or implanted – that effortlessly translate both written and spoken words into foreign languages (including Klingon, in some cases). Now Google (News - Alert) thinks it’s ready to bring the future of machine translation to us in the near future. The search giant has put the head of Google Translate, German computer scientist Franz Josef Och, on the case. Och, together with Google, have a noble goal: to build the perfect translation computer, a machine that is so inconspicuous and fast "that you hardly notice it all, except as a whisper in your ear," a device that can promptly spit out any text, the content of a website or a conversation in any other language, according to a recent article in Germany’s Der Spiegel.
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Since Google hired Och in 2004, Google Translate has made rapid progress. The tool, used by millions of people for both personal and professional reasons, can today translate text back and forth between 71 languages, including the less common ones, such as Basque and Haitian Creole. The technology is often used to translate Web pages, allowing (for example) an Italian website to be easily displayed in Mandarin Chinese. The mobile device app allows travelers to photograph signs or menus and receive instantaneous translations on their mobile phones.
The next generation of translation solutions, however, will involve the spoken word, and Google has been busy perfecting this technology. A traveler standing on a street corner in Japan, for instance, can speak a sentence into his smartphone and have the machine translation app instantly “speak” the words in Japanese (though the current result is somewhat tinny sounding). Thus far, this Translate app can cope with about two dozen languages, but Och and Google Translate feel that it still needs perfecting, with Och nothing that the app is currently still "slightly slow and awkward, because you have to press buttons."
On this front, Google has some stiff competition. Microsoft (News - Alert) recently debuted its own instant, spoken machine translation. Last year, Microsoft Research head Rick Rashid spoke at a conference in China, and used Microsoft’s machine translation solution. The results wowed the crowd, because not only was the solution effective, it used sounds gathered from Rashid’s own voice to create the translation in Mandarin, eliminating the “robo-voice” element from machine translation.
Going forward, machine translation solutions, both desktop and mobile, are likely to be an increasing presence in our lives. Such solutions can save companies that require frequent translation a great deal of money, so it’s in the best interests of both Google and Microsoft to succeed in getting their technologies right.
Edited by Alisen Downey