Fans of Douglas Adams’ Hitchkiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are well familiar with the Babel Fish. “Small, yellow and leech-like,” if you stick it in your ear “you can instantly understand anything in any form of language.”
This is why first AltaVista and now Yahoo used the term for their respective translation services (read another way, Yahoo bought Altavista and then discontinued it, but its BabelFish translator remains alive.)
But where Altahoo requires text input, Google has been working on something entirely different: Speech to text translation.
In 2010, Google launched its translation services, and in a generous nod to the spoken language offered voice input.
Building on top of that, Google also offered “Conversation Mode” between Spanish and English so that people speaking the two languages could more or less engage one another. That is, say, “Hola, ¿cómo estás?” into your Android device and it spits out a computerized voice saying, “Hello, how are you?”
Respond with, “I am fine, thank you,” and “Estoy bien, gracias,” comes out the other end. While imperfect in its capabilities, Spanish and English speakers can each more or less converse with one another.
This week Google announced that more languages are coming to Conversation Mode, namely Czech, Russian, Turkish, Japanese and Mandarin among others.
Sure it will be clunky at times, and yes awkward translations will lead to awkward situations, but what’s interesting about the technology and the solution is that it learns as it goes along. The more it’s used the more it begins to understand accents, and regional and language nuances.
So pick it up and give it a try. Laugh at its absurdities but also understand that someday, maybe, we’ll no longer need to look to science fiction and stick Babel Fish in our ears.