10 Jun /14

Dammit, Jim! I’m a Doctor, Not a Translator!

Skype Star Trek translatorTwo weeks ago at the Re/code Code Conference in California, a product was released that attempts to take a device from well-known science fiction and turn it into a technological reality. Borrowing a page from Star Trek’s universal translator (i.e. the device that Captain Kirk used to communicate with all of the alien people encountered on the show), Microsoft introduced Skype Translator, which attempts to combine a speaking-based platform like Skype and computer-based translation into a near-real-time, cross-language conversation. Since this product/technology is still in a pre-beta version- functional, but far from ready for widespread use- it is difficult to tell just exactly how useful, or indeed, user-friendly this product could be. However, at quick look at the technology involved, reveals the opportunities this type of product holds for the future.

Technologically speaking, what this product does is employ a speech-to-text function combined with a machine-based translator. Essentially, these functions have, in some form or another, been present in Microsoft products, such as Windows and Office, for almost 15 years already. Thus attempting to marry them together on Skype only makes logical sense. Adding to the innovative aspect, what makes this different from typical machine-based translations that you would typically find, such as through Bing or Babelfish, is that the translation software has the ability to “learn” from its mistakes as well as “learn” a more thorough and complex understanding of languages themselves.

While this idea seems sensible enough on paper, adapting it to widespread usage is another matter. Both speech-to-text functions and machine-based translation applications have certain critical flaws. With any speech-to-text software, there is a potential problem in understanding what is being said, owing to the fact that languages have multiple dialects, pronunciations, regional colloquialisms; all the while speakers have different manners of speaking. As for machine-based translation, to a varying degree, all forms suffer from the same issue: understanding the proper meaning and usage of a language, such as the difference between the physical state of being “well” and the “well” that is used to gather water.

As the translation industry has exemplified double-digit growth rates for the last few years, it is understandable that larger tech players want to establish an industry presence. Additionally, for Western companies like Microsoft that have large business software and communication applications, building onto and blending these applications only makes logical sense, especially when considering that North America and Europe make up over 80% of the translation services market.

Still though, the Achilles’ heel in all of this lies in the fact that machine-based translation cannot replicate the skill and understanding of a human translator. In the business world, where facts and statements need to be definite and well understood by all parties, several minor errors (as were experienced in the 3-minute sample conversation used in Microsoft’s demonstration) are not acceptable. When a business needs to communicate across languages, the automatic choice for the foreseeable future needs to remain competent human translators, because accepting the work of a still-flawed technology is, to quote Mr. Spock, “highly illogical.”

EVS Translations provides exactly that: professional business translation services when the language nuances matter.