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Google (Voice) solves universal translation soonish

Babel fishing for compliments

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Google has managed to get some decent press by announcing that, in a few years, it might be able to translate speech - something iPhone owners can already do.

The Times picked up the story, and breathlessly reports that such a development could "transform communications among speakers of the world's 6,000-plus languages" - nice to know that those sticking to the medium of mime will be unaffected. Anyone unwilling to wait the "couple of years" for Google's solution will just have to download the Jibbigo iPhone application, or join the US army.

Comparisons to Douglas Adams' creation the Babel Fish are inevitable, though The Times credits Google with creating a text translation tool while neglecting to mention the rather-earlier version from AltaVista named after the unfortunate fish ("unfortunate" as it was forced to live in the user's ear).

Also ignored in the popular press coverage is the fact that DARPA, our favourite mad-scientists-for-a-better-tomorrow funding body, has been pouring money into machine translation for years in the hope of enabling US soldiers to ask questions before shooting.

The DARPA money has been going into TransTac (Spoken Language Communications and Translation Systems for Tactical Use), and largely the International Centre for Advanced Communication Technologies (interACT) - specialists who've been working in the field for a while and whose spin-off product is an iPhone app that translates spoken English into Japanese or Spanish.

But the presence of existing products has never bothered Google before, and the Chocolate Factory reckons it's got the advantage of all those translated websites to work from. interACT uses EU speeches, which are recorded in full along with professional translations, to seed its translation efforts, though here at Vulture Central we're not sufficiently bilingual to judge the quality of what's on offer.

Translation systems for converting web sites into the Queen's English are of limited accuracy, but can still enable one to get a general sense of what a foreign article is about, which is often all one needs. Speech translation to a similar level would be equally useful even if we all have to adopt American accents to use it. ®

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