Google translation app to start converting speech into text

By James Riches topicIcon Google, Technology

Google is set to announce an upgrade to its Translate app that will allow speech to be converted directly into text across a range of languages.

The New York Times reports that Google Translate will soon be able to detect when a user is speaking a “popular language” and instantly convert that utterance into written text.

Currently, the service is able to translate across 80 languages, from widely spoken examples such as English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Arabic to minority languages like Basque, Catalan, Maori and Welsh. However, until now it has mostly only been able to help with text-to-text translations, with only a few languages supporting voice recognition.

The new service will display the conversation in both languages on screen, helping both parties keep track of what is being said and potentially even helping people pick up some new vocabulary.

With a reported 500 million active monthly users, Google Translate aims to help people all over the world converse and communicate more easily. Engineering director Macduff Hughes suggested that 80 to 90 per cent of the web is written in around 10 different languages, making Translate a potentially vital tool for millions of users.

The update will also mean that users can use their smartphone camera to get text translated, for example if they encounter a road sign they do not understand. Google has incorporated this into its service via an app called Word Lens, which it purchased in May of last year.

Google’s update comes not long after Skype rolled out a beta version of similar service, to a cautiously positive reception. Users have so far only been given the chance to try out an English and Spanish translator, but Skype eventually hopes to support 40 languages.

Will the new Google Translate work?

As with any translation service, there is some scepticism as to whether or not it will produce accurate results. If Skype’s attempt is anything to go by, users will certainly need to speak slowly and clearly in order to achieve the results they want.

It is likely that Google Translate will learn as it goes in order to provide users with a better, more accurate service. However, machine learning programmes such as this require a database to work from, and this will likely involve storing people’s conversations. Doing this could potentially raise a few eyebrows among those concerned about Google’s privacy policies.

In the same vein, there are also suggestions that Google may eventually use these conversations in order to target advertising at specific users.

However, with language often providing the greatest barrier to communication, this development is likely to intrigue plenty of people, from tourists looking to make the most of their holiday to businesses hoping to push through a crucial overseas deal.