Google’s Conversation Translation Looks Like a Gimmick

Google Translate on Android will now perform real-time, automated audio translation for conversations between English and Spanish speakers, Google announced in a blog post today.

The service is just beginning and is reported to be very experimental. Franz Och, head of Google’s translation services, said in February of 2010 that this new service should “work reasonably well in a few years’ time.” Given the wide range of languages, accents and intonations in the world, we probably shouldn’t expect this to be much more than a gimmick yet.

As ReadWriteWeb’s Mike Melanson explained last February:

…we can only imagine the difficulty of the task ahead, especially with languages such as Mandarin or Cantonese, which are tonally based. In Mandarin, for example, the word “ma” can have four different meanings according to the tone used. If the speaker uses the first tone, a constant high pitch, then the word means “mother”. If they use the third tone, a dropping then rising pitch, however, the meaning changes to “horse”.

Anyone who has used Google Translate in text form knows how awkward it can be. Do you know any Spanish speakers who can’t speak better English than Google Translate likely could? If so, do you really want to pull out your expensive smart phone and start waggling it in their faces? I expect this software will be used by lazy students doing homework far more often than it will be in actual conversation. ReadWriteWeb writer Curt Hopkins, who translates poetry, says of Android Translate, “this sort of tool works best for people who’ve studied a language already and are using it as a dictionary or refresher.”

Tower of Babel technology will always have a powerful draw; last month a new mobile augmented reality technology called Word Lens promised to translate written words on the fly and overlay the translation on our view of the world, for example. People were very excited about it all around the web. It made a great demo video, but the actual results when using the app are terrible.

Language, context, culture, class, technology – all of these present huge challenges. Google’s much celebrated computational learning of what words often appear together, thanks to things like search queries and Google Docs, still struggles to come close to the awesome power of wet-ware, the human mind. Language translation is an art. Approaching it like science sounds like a recipe for poor communication.

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