Translation Apps Will Change the World! Well, almost…

News headlines claiming that Google’s new real-time translation app will “change the world” made the professional language translation community bolt upright. But then people learned how it works and realised the headlines are far from the truth.

There is a lot of media hype about Google’s new Pixel Buds; wireless and voice-activated earphones which can translate in real time and using a voice-activated assistant control your phone’s activity. You can play music, find directions, make calls and all of the other duties without retrieving your phone from your pocket. And yet, the most impressive and important feature of the device is that you can communicate with people in a foreign language, in real-time.

The language translation industry has heard this kind of sensationalism before. When Google launched Google Translate on mobile phones in 2015, there was a lot of fuss made about that too. Tech Radar claimed the tech giant had just “turned your phone into a translator.” Google Translate did turn your phone into a translator, but any conversation in a foreign language was at that point mostly gibberish.

Google Translate has since improved significantly, however we’re not quite convinced that Pixel Buds, the real-time translator, will work any better despite media claims. In one sales pitch on behalf of the Cupertino-based tech giant, online magazine Engadget had this to say about Google Pixel Buds – despite only witnessing a 5-minute display on a San Francisco stage:

“You’ll be able to walk up to nearly anybody in another country and hold a fluid, natural language conversation without the need for pantomime and large hand gestures, or worry of offending with a mispronunciation. International commerce and communication could become as mundane as making a local phone call. The frictions of international diplomacy could be smoothed as well, ensuring that not only are a diplomat’s words faithfully translated but that a copy of the conversation is recorded well.”

Nevertheless, google translate does not translate language in a “fluid” and “natural” way. It makes a sentence understandable – which is about as much as machine translations have advanced in the past two years. Granted, translation apps have come a long way since Altavista launched Babel Fish in 1997, but they also have a long way to go before they are fluid and natural.

How does Google Translate work?

Like most technology Google produces these days, their new translations device principally works on foundations built by artificial intelligence. Google bots have a vast network of data they can tap into where their machines match words which appear to be parallel between two different languages.

The artificial intelligence then crunches this data to determine the most probable word in which language A corresponds to language B. Google Translate therefore is statistical guesswork based on conversations between foreign counterparts.

Although Google has ambitions to “pursue human quality translation and develop machine translation systems” statistical machine translation will never be 100% accurate. However, it is estimated that the accuracy of translations is set between 80-90%.

As a result, we cannot argue that Google Translate is a useful holiday companion. But if you need accurate translations for professional or business purposes such as legal, medical or marketing, the only solution is to work with an expert translation agency specialising in providing business translation services. Such companies will guarantee accuracy and reliability and ensure that your content is precisely localised for the target market or customer.

Translation companies such as TS24 will be able to not only carefully and accurately translate your content, but will also be able to advise you directly in regard to your chosen market and let you know whether your content will be socially and culturally appropriate for the audience. This is due to the fact that majority of human translators working for such agencies are native speakers of the target language and consequently are also aware of any socio-cultural differences between your home and target markets.

Microsoft real-time “translations”?

Companies which are producing online translation apps also claim that translations are given in real-time. We have to say they are pretty quick if you’re on a good wi-fi connection. But if you’re on a slow broadband, expect some lag time.

Early adopters of Skype Translator experienced problems with the speed and accuracy of language translations. Although Microsoft’s database of languages has improved significantly, the US firm is not bridging global communication quickly enough for international firms to justify the subscription fee for Skype Business.

However, even Microsoft will assist a little. They have ten languages; English, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Chinese (Mandarin), Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, French and German, but for business presentations we would advise to include engaging images and keep talking to a minimum. Skype doesn’t make the list of the six best online translator tools.

Indiegogo translation failure

There have been other translations machines that have come and gone. The much publicised tech start-up, Waverley Labs, didn’t get very far with their attempt at developing a translation tool. The Indiegogo project was dubbed to leverage speech recognition and machine translation for wearables, but had worn out within 18 months.

Over the other side of the globe, Japanese tech firms are leading the way with real-time translation apps. The government-funded National Institute of Information and Communications Technology are due to launch the VoiceTra app ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. This is in contrast to Russia who plan to use some 10,000 professional human translators in next year’s World Cup finals.

Tourists also have an easier time ordering food using translation apps. Way Go App is geared towards food and signage and NTT Docomo Inc. is helping shop assistants and restaurant staff in Japan communicate with foreign customers with their Hanashite Honyaku translation app.

Real-time translation apps do help lift communication barriers. But they still present hurdles in business settings. Until international companies have built a rapport and an understanding of working practices, there is no substitute for professional interpreters and comprehensive language translation services.

Whilst translation technology can fundamentally change how the global community interacts in different languages, don’t be swayed by the corporate paid media that help to sell fledgling technology to unsuspecting businesses. Your money will be better spent on tried and trusted models: qualified and professional human linguists.