Simultaneous translation by computer is getting closer
IN “STAR TREK”, a television series of the 1960s, no matter how far across the universe the Starship Enterprise travelled, any aliens it encountered would converse in fluent Californian English. It was explained that Captain Kirk and his crew wore tiny, computerised Universal Translators that could scan alien brainwaves and simultaneously convert their concepts into appropriate English words.
Science fiction, of course. But the best sci-fi has a habit of presaging fact. Many believe the flip-open communicators also seen in that first “Star Trek” series inspired the design of clamshell mobile phones. And, on a more sinister note, several armies and military-equipment firms are working on high-energy laser weapons that bear a striking resemblance to phasers. How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?
Not, perhaps, as long as language teachers, interpreters and others who make their living from mutual incomprehension might like. A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
Over the summer, Will Powell, an inventor in London, demonstrated a system that translates both sides of a conversation between English and Spanish speakers—if they are patient, and speak slowly. Each interlocutor wears a hands-free headset linked to a mobile phone, and sports special goggles that display the translated text like subtitles in a foreign film.
In November, NTT DoCoMo, the largest mobile-phone operator in Japan, introduced a service that translates phone calls between Japanese and English, Chinese or Korean. Each party speaks consecutively, with the firm’s computers eavesdropping and translating his words in a matter of seconds. The result is then spoken in a man’s or woman’s voice, as appropriate.
Microsoft’s contribution is perhaps the most beguiling. When Rick Rashid, the firm’s chief research officer, spoke in English at a conference in Tianjin in October, his peroration was translated live into Mandarin, appearing first as subtitles on overhead video screens, and then as a computer-generated voice. Remarkably, the Chinese version of Mr Rashid’s speech shared the characteristic tones and inflections of his own voice.
via The Economist
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