16 January 2014

The Future of Travel: Translation Apps

If you’ve travelled you’ve had this experience. The one where you awkwardly fumble a half formed sentence in a language you can’t really speak. You mix a bit of English in with the other language and hope through exaggerated hand gestures and repeating yourself in a loud voice, that somehow the language barrier will be breached. 

One day such embarrassments will be a thing of the past, and that day is not far off. Both iOS and Windows Phone have some great apps for translating speech in real time. It’s kind of like the universal translator from Star Trek or the Babel fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Google announced they were moving in this direction over a year ago, developing real time speech translation apps for Android and iOS. Eventually they intend to release an app which can translate phone conversations as they happen.

The iOS app Sendboo has a free version available with ads or a paid version without. It can translate over 30 languages. There are still problems with distinguishing between speech and background noise, and poor internet connection can cause lag, but these problems will inevitably be overcome with time. Windows Phone has an equivalent app called Translator with Speech from Brillisoft. It costs £2.29 and has now comes with a load of new language packs, making a total of 54. You speak into the mouthpiece and it speaks the translation right back at you. Technology like this will change the way we think about global travel. The new languages include Afrikaans, Arabic, Hebrew, and Malay in version 2.2 (only for Windows Phone 8).

You can access all of the languages as long as long you have a connection. For those tricky times when there’s no internet, you can use the offline option which includes 10 pre-installed language files with popular tourist phrases like "Where's the toilet".  The app also saves your translated words so that you don’t need to connect to hear them again.

Whichever operating system you use, you can probably get a great translation app for your phone already. The really exciting stuff is just around the corner and will change the face of translation technology as we know it. But no matter how advanced translation technology gets, it will never bring about an absolutely perfect translation between languages because no such thing really exists. 

It takes a human mind to understand the nuances of language and intended meaning. These apps might be great for ordering food on holiday, but you can’t use them in an international business meeting or to translate literature. I don’t imagine professional translators will be out of a job anytime in the near future.

Guest blog from Tom Rowsell, a technology and language geek who works for EmpowerLingua translations. They have a blog on their website which keeps you up to date with the latest in the field of translations and interpreting services. 

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