Google testing ‘universal translator’ prototype

July 28, 2013

universal-translatorI speak English fluently, and I know a little French and German. But that is as far as my language skills stretch. What I really need is a universal translator that does all the hard work for me.

Anyone reading this who is into science fiction will be aware of the universal translator, a device which allows instant communication between different species that is common to the genre. We don’t yet need to know how to forge a peace treaty with aliens, but we do need help in communicating amongst ourselves. Which is where Google enters into the equation.

Google Translate already exists, and is capable of translating written text into a number of different languages. But, as is the search and advertising giant’s way, Google is working on something much more impressive.

Android Vice-President Hugo Barra recently told The Times [paywall] how Google’s Babel project is coming along. The name “Babel” is a reference to the Babel fish from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that is capable of translating languages when inserted into the auditory canal.

According to Engadget, Barras claims that Google has “tons of prototypes of that sort of interaction,” with mobile devices in the works that will translate words spoken in one language into another language in real-time. He further claims that translations between certain languages — such as English to Portuguese — was “near perfect” in a recent test.

There are, however, certain obstacles that need to be cleared before this technology is mature enough to reach consumers. Firstly, it only works in “controlled environments” and has a much higher error rate when used in real-world settings. Also, the differences in syntax between languages provide a unique challenge that, if unresolved, could lead to us all sounding like Yoda from Star Wars.

Still, it’s very possible that within a few years we’ll be able to have conversations with people who speak a different language and understand every word they say. Pair this with Google Glass and the future suddenly seems very close.

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2 Responses to “Google testing ‘universal translator’ prototype”

  1. heidi:

    A few years to me sounds pretty optimistic. As a native speaker of a non-Indo-European language, and a linguist, I’m well aware of the obstacles present in such projects. While it may well be possible to have conversations with such a translator and basically be understood, it is by no means fluent. If you’d read current Google translations, say, between English and Spanish, that are after all pretty well comparable in some sense, you’d know that even the written translations are far from perfect at the moment.

    I love the idea personally, but I’m sceptical.

    And I just gotta be a bit of a know-it-all here and point out that in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Babel fish of course originates from the biblical story of the Tower of Bable where all of humanity spoke a single language.

  2. AHRoberts:

    I’ve been waiting for this since I was a kid! It would be so awesome. Language is a senseless barrier though it does build rapport among same-culture people.. And forget being bullied and tortured because you don’t speak the language.

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