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Mar 16 2010

Breaking Language Barriers

In the beginning, communication was hindered by distance.  Now, all that stands in the way of universal communication is language.  As computers and their programs grow faster and smarter, even this barrier is falling.  Join me as we take a brief snapshot of the budding industry of real-time translation.
 

Online translation went mainstream (in the ’90s!) with the venerable AltaVista Babel Fish.  The service was named directly after the method of translation used in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which was in turn based on the story of the Tower of Babel, in which the Christian God confused and scattered the languages of the people building a monument.  Babel Fish runs on the SYSTRAN language software, along with Yahoo and AOL (and Google until 2007).  The website was a standby for many a year, but much-improved services are now available for online translation.

Drawing on United Nations documents (nearly every official UN document is recorded in all six official UN languages), Google began building its own linguistic database some time after 2003.  It has since expanded to its current 52 languages and offers automatic language detection, explanation of a word’s roots, and text-to-speech for English results.  Most notably, Google’s translation software now translates in real time.  It is no longer necessary to click the ‘Translate’ button below the text input on Google’s Translate website – the results appear as you type.

While this has not been adapted to Google’s more instant communication platforms, the technology itself is rumored to eventually be integrated with future phones.  The software will use speech recognition to record in text format the original speech, translate the text instantly to the target language, and implement text-to-speech to kick it back out vocally (translated) at the other end.  With Google’s development of its own Android mobile platform and the current state of Google Translate, it has all the tools and resources it needs to bring this dream to fruition.

Note: Google Wave has a few translation bots that work with the real-time service, but the software itself is still largely under development (and not widely used).

Another recently announced real-time translation software is already being put to use for instant communication.  VoxOx, as of February 16, 2010, offers the Universal Translator to translate in real time any instant messages a user sends in its aggregated messaging software.  Messengers included are SMS, Windows Live, AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, Yahoo, Myspace, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter.  Instead of copying and pasting every sentence through the Google Translate page, users of VoxOx can simply type away in their native language, and a reasonably accurate translation will be instantly delivered to the recipient.

There aren’t many options for this technology available just yet, but Google has a knack for blowing things up (in a good way).  With the world so tightly and instantly connected, there is no longer room for (or excuse for) language barriers.  Whether between international work divisions, between blogging/twittering pen pals, or between different branches of your own family, the ability to communicate across languages in real time is necessary and soon to be a reality.

Where would you most like to see real-time translation?  How would you use it?

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Photo credits: Tower of Babel by Odyssevs
Lost in Translation by tochis
A boy and his dog by wiseacre photo

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