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%.… Read More