Google Translate to introduce spoken language interpreting

Google plans to upgrade its Translate app to be able to interpret conversations between people speaking different languages in real time.

Following in the footsteps of Skype and its live translator launched last month in the English-Spanish combination, the Google Translate app for smartphones will tackle several of the world’s most popular languages right from the start, the New York Times has reported.

Turning spoken language into written text, the app will also allow users to scan signs written in foreign languages with their smartphone cameras and display translations or read them out loud in the user’s target tongue. The latter function was originally developed by American software company Quest Visual as part of its Word Lens tool. Google acquired Quest Visual in 2014.

The Google Translate app, currently installed on 100 million Android phones around the world, offers online translation as well as offline packages for about 90 of the world’s languages plus limited capability in some of the rarer or even fictional tongues such as Pirate or Klingon.

The same software is powering the automatic website translation service on Google’s Chrome browser.

The accuracy of the translation varies greatly between individual languages and depends largely on the size of the linguistic database for each tongue. While usually quite accurate when translating individual words and phrases, the system frequently struggles with sentences and more complex texts, especially in those languages using intricate inflection systems to express different grammatical categories that are not known to English. The result is a frequent misinterpretation of meaning and confusion of subjects and objects in the sentences.

Data for these databases are gathered from users and initially verified by human translators.

The New York Times said gathering data for such services poses considerable privacy issues as it relies on real-life linguistic output of regular users.

The pilot version of Skype’s live translation service for Skype calls was made available last month to a limited number of users. However, it has only elicited lukewarm response.

Microsoft also offers a translation service as part of its Bing search engine, which powers translation systems used by Twitter and Facebook.

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