Bill Gates had a vision of the future, set out in his 1995 tome, “The Road Ahead” (and later in “Business @ The Speed of Thought”) which included computers performing seamless speech and handwriting recognition, and language understanding (even to the extent of lip reading). Many of his predictions have come true yet it’s easy to forget what the world was like before the advent of technology we now take for granted.
In the not-too distant future, we may have the ability, babel fish-like, to automatically hear in our own language, regardless of what is spoken. Institutions like the EU have thousands of translators and interpreters, who provide written, spoken and signed interpretation between different languages. There are rigorous checks in place when trying to get work in these areas (though not everywhere), as we all know what can happen when wrong grammar is used, the words are unsuitable, or punctuation is in the incorrect place.
Computerised language translation has come a long way, and though it may still a way off replacing real translators, it’s good enough for most people to get the gist of a foreign document or website – so while you might not rely on it to turn a contract from French to English, it’s fine to figure out what’s on a menu or read some instructions.
There are plenty of mobile apps and websites like Bing Translator, and the cloud-powered translation service is built-into Word (just right-click and Translate on any text).
Microsoft Research Asia recently won a competition for the best machine translation between a host of languages, and the growing fidelity of AI models is helping to improve the quality – a year previously, the Chinese-English translation was adjudged to be at human conversation level already, so it might not be too long before machine translation gets good enough that it’s hard to tell the difference between that and humans.
A practical tip for users of the new Chromium-based “Edge Dev” browser; you can enable on-the-fly webpage translation by going to edge://flags/, search for trans to find the translation flag, then switch it on and restart the browser. It is an experimental feature, technically, so YMMV for now.
Now, when you browse to a foreign-language site, you’ll be prompted if you’d like to translate (or you can invoke the function using the Bing Translator icon to the right of the address in the toolbar).
Legacy Edge users can install the Translator extension.
As they say in translation circles, Yandelvayasna grldenwi stravenka!
Tip o’ the Week 333 – Du Temps Perdu
Last weekend saw the greatest motor race in the world take place in the presence of hundreds of thousands of visiting fans, though mainstream media barely gave it a passing glance. If you’re interested, you may be able to catch highlights on Eurosport or watch online, looking out for the Scottish knight as he transitions from two to four wheels.
With a good portion of the sporting world focussed on France right now (at least you’d think that, given the TV coverage), it seem opportune to look at some language tools if the de facto lingua franca of The Mother Tongue isn’t available.
Machine translation has become fairly commonplace, and though it’s not perfect, it’s a lot better than the non-fluent might achieve by stumbling through a phrasebook and getting all the pronunciation wrong. Translation in real time is now built-in to Skype, with instant message or even full spoken voice translation available in several languages. The technology is moving from simple word-by-word conversion, to full semantic and grammatical translation (though not yet summarising or otherwise interpreting), and it might not be all that long before fully synchronous, real-time translation from any language to any other is possible just by sticking an earpiece in. Douglas Adams would have been pleased.
Windows 10 has added translation capabilities into Cortana; saying something like Hey Cortana, translate “Where is the nearest train station” in French or Hey Cortana, how do I say “Oh no, not penalties again” in German should let you see, and possibly hear, what the translation should be.
Click on the Open Translator link to visit the Bing Translator web page, which will do the same sort of thing, but can also break down the phrase by word, showing alternative words in the translated text that you might want to use instead.
If you’re running a preview version of the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, and have a build later than 14302, you can also add an Edge extension to translate a page that’s written in another language, accessed via the Translator icon showing up on the toolbar.
It’s a bit “all or nothing”, and doesn’t show you the individual words that it has translated, but it is quick and easy. You may want to try feeding the URL into bing.com/translator or translate.google.com to see how well the translation has gone (if you hover over translated words, both will show you the original underneath, though both have a habit of mangling complex websites).
Finally, if you’d like to just translate a short phrase but might be offline at the time (so Cortana isn’t any use), it’s worth installing the Bing Translator app, which also has the ability to translate text identified from the camera, such as on a menu or an instructional sign. Très bien, or as Proust would say, “la malade imaginaire de recondition et de toute surveillance est bientôt la même chose”!