Where next for language translation? A ‘universal translator’ is probably closer than you think …

I recently posted an article on my blog titled ‘Free online translation websites tested – guess who the winner is …‘, where I commented on the recent developments of free online translation tools, together with some ‘test results’ comparing the translations performed by the first ten translation websites identified by Google search for ‘online translation’.

My research for that article showed that, in particular, a couple of websites, including Yahoo Babel Fish, and Google Translate, are introducing powerful tools to aid not just language translation, but also web search. This made me wonder, ‘Where next for language translation?‘.

A little more research, and it became clear that some of the next steps are in fact already here (but perhaps still facing early development challenges), while others are almost upon us. Thinking broadly, there are other potential opportunities, which one can now begin to take seriously, that in the past were only conceivable in the realms of science fiction (see also my blog post ‘Predicting the future with Hollywood science fiction films‘, on this same theme).

1. Search websites/twitter across any language, with findings shown to you in your own language

Want to find something on the web, but don’t want to be restricted to just those findings in your own language? Want to be able to enter a search keyword in, say, English, but also be able to find results on websites that are in French, German, Japanese, etc.? And if the search results come up with findings in those languages, but you can’t actually read them, do you want the search results to be automatically translated into your own language so you can read them?

In theory all of this is possible, already now.

Web search

Google Translate includes a page on how to do this, here.  Unfortunately this technology has so far not been integrated seamlessly into the standard Google search function (presumably that will come later) – maybe Google wants to perfect it before doing so. One day however, standard search functions might just have a small footnote in the corner of the screen informing you of what language the original, underlying content was written in (which might be very different to what you have on the screen in front of you).

When recently looking online for something to test Google Translate with, I found a PDF file of a Dutch-language PHD Mathematics thesis, as well as some ‘thought leadership’ materials written by a multinational oil company. Both translated smoothly into English. One can imagine that future educational or scientific research could be accelerated by being able to build on thoughts by any researcher anywhere in the world, who is willing to post their findings online.

Twitter and twitter search

Twitter has also recently announced its entry in local language into a number of new markets, including Japan and France. Even before having local language versions of its website however people from all of the world have been using Twitter.com (in whatever language they wanted to use).

Why restrict yourself to only following people on on Twitter who speak your language?

Combining tools like Google Translate into Twitter could allow one, in one’s own native language, to search and observe tweets which are made in other languages.

Of course, there might be some challenge to translating tweets, which due to be limited to 140 characters, are often written in note form. Nevertheless, by excluding names, and translating any key words likely enough to show trends and help find interesting tweets.

2. Translate online audio and video files

Financial commentators seem to like to discuss whether Google’s acquisition of YouTube has so far failed to achieve the potential that was original planned (eg, Lex: YouTube on ft.com/techblog).  That might all be about to change.  Google is about to begin the ‘captioning’, or ‘subtitling’ of videos (see also the recent New York Times article on this, ‘Google to Add Captions, Improving YouTube Videos‘).

Billed as being great news for deaf or hard-of-hearing people, Google also stands to benefit significantly also from the ability to search the transcripts of videos, if they are captured in such a captioning process, and hence better link advertising to the videos (and thereby expand its revenue stream).

Using Google Translate, Google also hopes to be able to show the captioning/subtitling in the language of the user (regardless of the language spoken in the video when it was recorded). This way, almost anyone in the world could watch YouTube videos with subtitles in their own language.

That’s the short-term plan, but who’s to say that in the near future it won’t be possible to dub the voices also – all that is required is:

  • a determination of male/female voice, and
  • the addition of some form of tonality to the voice, which would need to be based on the original tone of the speaker, the chosen language (most languages have differing forms of tonality/voice modulation), and the sentence structure (eg, increase in tone at the end of a sentence if it is a question).

3. Real-time computer operated translation/interpretation (in real life)

This might be the holy grail of translation.  The ‘babel fish‘ that was conceived by Douglas Adams, in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The ‘universal translators‘ that the crew used in the old Star Trek shows, so they could speak to the residents of the various planets they visited, and other aliens that they met and liaised with over time.

And guess what, it exists already, thanks partly to military research, and thanks also to the recent development of smartphones.

At least, various forms of real-time translation exist which don’t involve putting a small yellow fish in your ear, rather, use more bulky electronic equipment, but they’re early versions and one can expect that future development will make the technology smaller and cheaper, to the extent that a small ‘hands-free’ mobile type ear-set (possibly connected by blue-tooth with a larger smartphone unit in a jacket pocket) will do the job perfectly.

Some examples:

  • IraqComm, is a software and hardware offering, involving bi-directional speech translation software, which works in real-time. The software has been developed for the US military in Iraq, translating and ‘speaking’ (ie, audio output) for the most important 50,000 or so words between Arabic and English.  Other examples of similar research exist, such as the TransTac : Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use, at InterACT, the International Center for Advanced Communication Technologies at Universität Karlsruhe (TH) and Carnegie Mellon University .
  • Jibbigo, an iPhone based English-Spanish translation software tool (developed by a team that works closely with InterACT).  Jibbigo can record you saying a sentence in English, then replay the sentence in Spanish, or vice-versa (see example on YouTube here). Jibbigo impressed me the most with its real-time voice-to-voice translation (see an example, on YouTube, here).
  • Speeek!, again for iPhone  – English-Japanese translation software tool.
  • RantNetwork‘s Communilator, a translation device covering 20 different languages, for Blackberry owners (text entry only, but audio output in your chosen language).
  • iSpeak – applications (‘apps’) for various different languages (again, text entry only, but audio output in your chosen language).
  • Sakhr Software‘s Arabic-English speech-to-speech translation software, for iPhone (see example, on YouTube, here).
  • Oddcast ‘Text-to-Speech translator’ – so far web-based only, but one of my favorites, since it includes an ‘avatar’ (a computer generated face on screen) which ‘says’ your translated text for you, and even includes male/female options and choice of dialects from different countries to match the language being translated into and ‘spoken’ (details of the set-up options can be found here)
  • Yanko Design has come up with a concept whereby a pendant containing micro video camera technology might record sign-language from hand guestures, and speak it aloud

Most of the ones above that work on a smartphone, like Jibbigo, involve you holding the phone to your face and speaking, and then, after a pause, you hear a slightly tinny, electronic voice repeat the phrase in a foreign language. They may be basic, but you can be sure that now the technology exists, it will surely improve significantly in the next few years.

Perhaps the thing that might cause the fastest change would be if Google steps into the arena?

Are there any risks?

A couple spring to mind:

  • Might willingness to learn a foreign language decline as translation tools become more powerful?
  • Is there a risk that even with accurate translations, the ‘sense’ or ‘intention’ of the article might be altered/lost since the ‘between the lines’ implications, that might only be observable in the original language material, could be lost?
  • Might we lose our skepticism of online translation tools, in our willingness to be impressed by their development, and forget to challenge what we are shown, and accept translation mistakes as being fact?
  • Given the increasing simplicity with which one can translate webpages, do we run a risk of loss of copyright control, as owners of online content (eg, if someone were to translate this page into Chinese,  I would find it difficult at the moment to know if that were the case … but then perhaps ‘ignorance is bliss’ in that sense).

Such risks might need to be managed, but we can’t avoid change and should look for the opportunities and manage the risks, rather than avoid innovative development.

5 Responses

  1. Things are moving quickly – I wrote above, under Web Search, that:

    “Unfortunately this technology has so far not been integrated seamlessly into the standard Google search function (presumably that will come later) – maybe Google wants to perfect it before doing so. One day however, standard search functions might just have a small footnote in the corner of the screen informing you of what language the original, underlying content was written in (which might be very different to what you have on the screen in front of you).”

    Google has caught up already – see this article:


    The key is, after entering a keyword in any Google search, to click ‘Show options’ and then click ‘Translated Search’. I still find this rather ‘indirect’ however (shouldn’t it simply be part of ANY google search?).

  2. Check out also this video from 7 December 2009 by Vic Gundotra, Vice-President of Engineering for Google:

    (the link here starts the video at the relevant point, 14 minutes and 55 seconds into the total video recording – watch the next 90 seconds or so, which cover Google’s future plans for language translation).

  3. Machine translation will never work because machines don’t understand the meaning of anything. Machines don’t translate, they only replace words by words according to an algorithm. That is why the progress achieved in machine translation over the last fifty years was only incremental and not very significant.

    I am a professional freelance translator and I have several posts about machine translation on my website explaining my understanding of MT.

  4. Interesting updates from Google today:




    Early stage, only for Android, and limited number of languages (just Spanish-English in the Alpha version available, but the demo in the YouTube video above was for German-English)

  5. […] Where next for language translation? A ‘universal translator’ is probably closer than you think … (November 2009) […]

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