Skype Translator vows to translate multilingual voice calls - but is it any good?

David Crookes finds out how fluent the new service is - and whether it has the potential to revolutionise the way we communicate

"I can speak Spanish." When those words left the lips of a former colleague, my head turned and my right eyebrow automatically raised. I knew the man well. True, he had visited Spain a few times but surely not enough for him to be able to claim that he could speak the language. Anyone can say "Cerveza, por favor", but that wasn't going to equip him with what I knew was about to come next.

He hadn't heard the preceding conversation. The one in which a reporter had been discussing a complex case that would involve a call to the Spanish police. Then again, maybe he had hidden his fluency in another language and he certainly looked confident enough.

"I have some questions," said the reporter. "Please can you phone this number and speak to the cops in Madrid and let me know what they say." It's not often that you see someone's blood visibly drain from their face but I saw it that day.

As suspected, he was no more fluent in Spanish than Andrew Sachs. He made some excuse about being rusty, bravely said he would give it a go but asked if he could make the call in another room. Lo and behold, the interview never did quite work out. Something about the police not picking up the phone.

But if a service set to be launched later this year had been available, he would have been spared the embarrassment. For Skype Translator promises to automatically translate multilingual voice calls and it has the potential to revolutionise the way we talk to people whose language we do not share.

While translation programs already exist, the vast majority of them rely on the two people conversing to be in the same room at the same time. A person will talk in one language, indicate via a button or pause that they have finished talking and then get a translation that the other person can understand.

What Skype Translator will do is allow people to have fluid, remote conversations over the phone, with each side hearing the words spoken in the language they understand. As one of a number of companies working on the technology – the predominant mobile phone network in Japan NTT DoCoMo already has such a system running and Google is hoping to perfect real-time calls over the next few years – Skype is set to make a massive impact given it has more than a third of the international call market and 300 million users across the world.

Skype's forthcoming service is not an entirely new concept. For £6 an hour, Call Interpreter by Lexifone, which launched last year, lets you call an access number, dial the person you want to speak to and chat fluidly in your own language, converting it into another. But Lexifone's initial reception wasn't great, with critics saying it was frustrating and not always as seamless as it should be. When Skype launches Translator it will be on a limited beta so we could perhaps expect some teething problems too. "It is early days for this technology but the Star Trek vision for a Universal Translator isn't a galaxy away and its potential is every bit as exciting," says Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice-president of Skype. Still, such technologies go a long way towards addressing a growing need.

Businesses compete in a global market and ideas are shared across countries. Migration creates multilingual societies that bring their own needs. Police forces in England and Wales spent £40m on human translators over three years. Councils also splash the cash on employing interpreters to man phone lines. Bolton Council, which deals with a good number of Urdu, Gujarati and eastern European residents, spends £20,000 a year speaking to them via interpreters on the phone. The council is watching Skype Translator "with interest".

Multilingual: the Skype Translator in action Multilingual: the Skype Translator in action
Much of the demand for translation has also resulted from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both countries there was a lack of military, diplomatic and intelligence personnel conversant in languages such as Arabic, Dari, Pashto and Urdu. In 2007, IBM's speech-to-speech translation software was introduced by US forces in Iraq to help them communicate more effectively with the Iraqi police, military forces and civilians. A demand such as this has only intensified the amount of research time and money being spent on machine translation.

Certainly, Skype Translator draws on years of expensive study by Microsoft Research (Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5bn in May 2011). But those who have seen Translator in action say it will be worth the effort. "I saw an early demonstration of the technology in 2010," says Dr Jeff Allen, an asdviser in computer-generated translation for business software company SAP. "Even at that time, the researchers were able to get the system to handle fairly rapid speech."

Skype Translator uses a process called "deep learning" which is based upon computerised neural networks rather than just the writing of explicit rules (the way computerised translation was carried out prior to the 1990s). Together they act as an artificial brain, able to learn the complex features of speech. It is data-hungry so the more knowledge of a language it picks up, the more accurate it becomes. What's more, in learning Spanish, for instance, it will become better at German. And even Skype doesn't know why this happens.

But then such systems will always be highly complex. Speech is rule-governed but there is more to it than just stringing words together. Linguist and author David Crystal says a perfect machine translator needs to understand the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech and consider idioms, metaphorical expression and discourse features. It needs to be culturally aware and stylistically appropriate.

"If you look at a sentence such as 'It was like Clapham Junction in there today', it can be handled in principle once the relevant linguistic analysis is done," he says. "But we are a long way from achieving that level of sophistication, even for the most well-studied languages." In other words, a machine would have to be highly intelligent to understand that Clapham Junction is a busy railway station and translate it as such.

There are also two processes at play. A translation app needs accurate voice recognition – to know exactly what you are saying without making a mistake. And it needs advanced machine translation to take those words and compute it into another language. According to Alexander Marktl, CEO of Sonico Mobile, maker of the Mac program iTranslate, there has been an imbalance of the two technologies. "The accuracy of voice recognition is improving way faster than the accuracy of machine translation," he says. "The biggest problem with speech-to-speech translation is having not one but two areas with accuracy problems. It is why you sometimes see funny results, no matter how sophisticated the technology."

For this reason, Dr Allen remains cautious. "Language is not binary and it's forever inventing new ways of saying things," he says. "This technology won't replace humans just yet. There will still be a need for professional interpreters to work in the legal and medical professions, for diplomacy and conferences. We see how difficult it is to translate political jokes from one language to another with humans. Imagine the bloopers that could be caused by a computer."

Even so, the new technology should have us conversing like never before. Crystal says the software will address the need for intelligibility and insists people will still want to learn a language. "The need to express identity is why we have different languages, dialects, and accents," he says. The machines, it seems, will help us talk but they'll never take our personality.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £25000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

    Recruitment Genius: HTML5 Games Developer

    £34000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Engineer

    £20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for an excellent opport...

    Recruitment Genius: Field Service Engineer - Basingstoke / Reading Area

    £16000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established name in IT Ser...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map