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2/1/2011
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Review: Google Translate A Step Toward Universal Translator

The Conversation Mode feature of the Google Translate app for Android devices makes it possible to carry out a spoken, in-person conversation and have the phone translate both sides.

Real Time Conversation With Google Translate
(click image for larger view)
Slideshow: Real Time Conversation With Google Translate

Every fan of the original Star Trek series remembers the Universal Translator, the small device that allowed the crew of the Enterprise to converse with alien beings. Well, with the latest version of the Google Translate app for Android devices, we may be seeing the first real steps towards a working universal translator.

Of course, Google Translate has been around for a while and it is already a handy app for translating entered text phrases into multiple different languages on the fly. But the new Translate 2.0 has a beta feature that is easily among the coolest mobile device capabilities that I have seen.

Google Translate now includes a Conversation Mode, which, essentially, makes it possible to verbally carry out a conversation with someone in real time and have it translated into their native language. Currently, this beta feature of Translate 2.0 can only handle conversations between English and Spanish.

I tested out Google Translate on Android in conversations both where I spoke in my admittedly mediocre Spanish, and in a conversation that I had with a friend who is a native Spanish speaker. Though Translate had a few flubs, including a couple of hilarious mistranslations worthy of a Monty Python skit, for the most part I was impressed with its capability.

To get started, your Android device needs some form of Internet connection. I tested it out with both a Wi-Fi connection and a 3G connection and it worked fine in both cases.

To get started in a conversation, you simply press the microphone icon next to the text input field and begin speaking in, for example, English. The option to go to Conversation Mode will pop-up and clicking on this enters Conversation Mode.

After you complete your phrase, Translate converts the phrase to a digital waveform and then comes up with a potential translation, which is displayed in a conversation bubble. If the translation is correct, choose Correct (or Correcto if you are speaking Espanol) and then the app speaks the phrase in a classic but clearly understandable text to speech voice. The Conversation Mode window then offers a response in the alternate language, so if the first speaker was English, the response would be in Spanish.

Of course, it is hardly a fluid conversation when using Translate but this stop and start method actually works well to avoid errors. And if the Conversation Mode is incorrect, a text input field is provided to make sure that the proper phrase is translated and spoken.

There will be some errors. When I was doing the Spanish speaking, the app clearly had problems with my bad pronunciation. For example, when I said "Donde esta el bano?" the app translated it as "Where do I install the chicken?"

However, when I carried out the conversation with my native Spanish-speaking friend, the accuracy of Google Translate improved dramatically. Between the translations for English to Spanish and vice versa, the accuracy was above 80%. In our ten-minute conversation, we only had to fix translations a few times.

This is still considered beta functionality and there are a few limitations besides the limited language options in Conversation Mode.

Probably the biggest weakness right now, especially for an app that runs on a phone, is that it really only works for in-person conversations. There is currently no provision to call someone and use Google Translate to handle the translations, though it would be possible to call someone on another phone used in speaker mode.

Still, I'm very excited about the future of this app. Probably the most frustrating aspect of travel is digging through a phrase book while trying to get directions, or make a waiter understand your dietary restrictions.

With the new Conversation Mode in Google Translate, I, like Captain Kirk, can now go anywhere and have the expectation of being understood by the natives (well, for now, so long as they speak Spanish).

Outside of Conversation Mode, Translate still makes it possible to type or speak phrases and have them translated into a very wide variety of languages, from French and German to Arabic and Korean.

Google Translate is available as free download to Android devices from the Android Market.

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