Google’s new translation app aims to turn mobile phones that run on the Android operating system into universal translators. The app is capable of translating text written in one language into speech in another, and vice versa. So, for example, if you were in a foreign country and needed to find a bathroom, you could fire up the app and say “Where is the bathroom?” Your phone would then translate the phrase for you, display the text in the foreign language, and could also read the text out loud in a computerized voice if you desired.
Currently, the app can only translate speech in English, Mandarin and Japanese, but Google expects to release more languages shortly. Text-only translations are available in 50-plus languages including Icelandic, Slovenian and Swahili. The LA Times notes that the translations “are often less than perfect,” and until someone actually builds a protocol droid like C3PO from Star Wars, real live human interpreters will always have a place. However, Google’s translations will no doubt improve with time, as Google feeds its translation system with ever-increasing amounts of information.
According to the New York Times, Google also plans to introduce image analysis to Google’s mobile translation app. So, not only will you be able to type or speak the phrases that you need to have translated, you can also use your phone’s camera to take a picture of say, a foreign-language street sign and have the words on the sign translated for you.
How has Google managed to outpace other automated translation services in such a short time? In the New York Times, Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media explained why Google is so well-suited to the job:
“Machine translation is one of the best examples that show Google’s strategic vision. It is not something that anyone else is taking very seriously. But Google understands something about data that nobody else understands, and it is willing to make the investments necessary to tackle these kinds of complex problems ahead of the market.”