Google carries the barrier of the language!

by Translation Guy on February 15, 2010

Google carries the barrier of the language with the translating telephone.

Google is developing software for the first capable assembly to translate foreign tongues almost instantly as the fish bebble and that is all, to speak with Scott in the Galaxy….

Huh? This blog is supposed to be about the Google Voice translation announcement last week, but so far I’m making less sense than usual ― this is smelling more like TranslationParty than some big voice translation breakthrough. Maybe the problem is the SDL machine translation I used for the back translation:

Google lleva la barrera del idioma con el teléfono traductor.

Google está desarrollando software para la primera convocatoria capaz de traducir lenguas extranjeras casi instantáneamente como los peces bebble y eso es todo, hablar con Scott en el Galaxy.

¡Ay, caramba! You don’t need to know Spanish to know how bad that is.  Maybe the problem goes back to an earlier step in the voice translation process. The phrase above is a Google translation from a Google Voice transcription and is actually pretty good for Google Translate. Here’s the source text:

Google leads language barrier with translator phone.

Google is developing software for the first call capable of translating foreign languages almost instantly like the bebble fish and that’s it, talk to Scott at Galaxy.

Hey, but that’s not what I said!

Don’t get me wrong. I love Google Voice (super convenient and free), so who’s to complain? I recorded the headline and lede of this story onto my answering machine, and in less than two minutes I got a transcription in my email. That is amazing, but it’s not what I said, which was:

Google leaps language barrier with translator phone

Google is developing software for the first phone capable of translating foreign languages almost instantly — like the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

That’s what I said, reading in Standard English at a normal conversational speed, in a professionally enunciated tone (I’ve taken voice training) ― Scouts honor, I did not try to jam Google Voice!  Maybe the problem is the process, as error accumulates step by step (so something like TranslationParty).

Now if you read the story closely, Google didn’t actually say they had built the software, just that they were going to.  I suppose that as the CEO of a telephone interpretation service, I should be relieved that Google hasn’t put me out of business just yet, but I’m a bit disappointed too, though not surprised at all.

People have been talking about Star-Trek-like universal translators for a long time. And they will be talking about them for a long time to come. Despite the remarkable advances we’ve seen, this latest endeavour is still a long way from seamless technology, even with the vast resources of Google bent to the task. The challenge of increasing accuracy to the level of easy human comprehension, with an acceptable level of delay, is logarithmically more difficult than the current state of the art and is likely to remain so for a long time.

I anticipate two compromises required of users of audio translation systems for many years to come:

1. You will have to pay. It may be cheap, but it won’t be free.
2. Users will have to learn to settle for third-rate technology.  The level of frustration in learning to adapt and effectively use such systems will be high.

So that universal translator will remain on screen for a long time. And I don’t think Google is going to be the one to do it anyway.

And now the screed, which is always the most fun to write. Each time someone promises universal, instant, free translation, they score a headline, and it’s a point against our profession, we the thousands of linguistic squirrels, racing along behind the scenes on our little linguistic hamster wheels, making it seamless for everyone else. So I close with a quote by Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs on Google, which I think applies in this case too: Bullshit!


  1. Nelida K. says:

    Excellent article. No way that we human translators will be replaced anytime soon. Anyone who maintains the opposite view, it’s just BS.

    If I may, a small correction (maybe it was the spellchecker’s fault). I guess you meant “in a professionally ENUNCIATED tone” (not “annunciated” tone). One more evidence that however useful and time-saving all these automated devices are, none is equal to the trained eye of a human translator….

    Regards, take care

    • Ken says:

      Nelida, I make no claim to annunciative ability, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s always the spellchecker’s fault… . Thanks for spotting that.

  2. Kirti Vashee says:

    I think very much on target – while it is wonderful to dream and make amazing things possible, we are so far away from usable stuff here that the appropriate response probably is : Bullshit.

    IBM has the most developed technology in this area and in very specific applications it is quite amazing but so far away from replacing human interpreters.

    I once spoke to somebody at the DIA or was it the CIA who told me that everything else (in terms of technology) on the Starship Enterprise is easier to realize than the universal translator.

    So lets get warp speed and beaming based travel happening before we try the really difficult stuff.

    • Ken says:

      I agree with your agreement, Kirti. Those Darpa guys are doing some amazing stuff, and I love my Vlingo. But let’s get real. Thanks for your comment, Kirti!

  3. Durf says:

    Look at the bright side: if Google does magically manage to come up with a computer that can handle tasks as complex as translation between human languages, that computer will also be up to the task of far simpler stuff like designing software. So all those Google engineers will be out of a job along with us.

  4. Jim says:

    Looks like a real revolutionary service. I see it as an opportunity and not a threat for us translators.

    • Ken says:

      Jim, if the service did actually exist, I agree that it would be revolutionary and an opportunity for all us translators too. But I don’t think its going to be existing anytime soon. Did they have those universal communicators in that new Star Trek movie, which is set in what 2300 AD or something? Well if they did, I didn’t see any Google branding on them. I rest my case. Thanks for your comment.

  5. a dark ally says:

    Hello Ken,

    I agree with Nelida, that it is going to be a long time before machines can do as effective a job as human beings – although there is a vibe among researchers working in AI that is pretty darn optimistic!

    Have you engaged the diction of interpreting vs translating? It seems important to me to make this distinction. I don’t mean to feed arguments that the work of one or the other is more important or meaningful or harder or any of those judgments, because that kind of evaluation is always contextual: there is no way to generalize from discrete, specific examples.

    But there is something about the role of time – that “acceptable level of delay” you mentioned – which does characterize a distinction between the activities of participating in a simultaneously-interpreted interaction and reading a translated text. The act of reading is also participatory, but the time constraints are completely different: both in the production of the translation and in its consumption/reception.

    If you can point me in the direction of anyone having this conversation, I’ll be most grateful!

    best regards,

  6. Paul Hardman says:

    TranslationParty Ken…gimme a break…dont waste your time mentioning them on this quality blog

  7. Quincy says:

    Very well written post – I like it Ken

  8. What the heck is Google doing in the translation space…they are everywhere

    • Ken says:

      Google aggregates. Translation is just something else they can aggregate. The guys with the most servers win.

  9. Unitas says:

    googleowns the world!

  10. Adela says:

    I love Google Translate because of the audio pronunciation and live translation, but with only one translator, you never know if the translation is accurate. I can’t imagine the possible misunderstandings live over the phone. I mean how many times have my students used a translator and gotten “yo lata” for “I can” instead of “puedo.” I think it is better to use the Spanish translation tool from if you’re going to use one at all. Just my opinion as a Spanish teacher. It has three translators (including Google) so that you can compare the translations and find the best option. But of course, this is only a text translator. Cross fingers for voice soon!

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