Skype Can Now Translate Conversations In Real Time

Photo: Courtesy Microsoft.
Communicating with someone who speaks a different language can be immensely challenging. Whether you're trying to collaborate on an international professional project or connecting with a relative who doesn't speak English, broken sentence fragments and hand gestures just aren't that effective at getting your thoughts across. Luckily, Skype's newest tool, Skype Translator, aims to break down those language barriers in a very cool way.

Skype Translator translates speech into text and audio in real time, so you can have a conversation with someone else in which each of you speaks your own native tongue. It works with six languages — English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, and Spanish. If you're just chatting over Skype's instant messenger, it works with 50 more languages, including Finnish, Urdu, and even Klingon.

Here's how it works: You choose a contact to chat with (let's say, a member of your company's German marketing team); then, tap the Skype Translator icon in the upper right-hand corner of your screen. Choose the languages that you and your colleague will each be speaking, and then start a Skype call (or chat). You can go ahead and talk normally in English; the app will listen to what you say, translate it into written text (which you can see on-screen), and then translate your text into German audio. It's not quite instantaneous (the translation process takes a second or two), but it's the closest to real-time language translation I've ever seen.

While the translations are not perfect, they are really good. In a demo with a Spanish-speaker in Colombia, Skype Translator was about 90 to 95% accurate — it missed a few words I mumbled, and stumbled on the phrase "science fiction" (it wrote "science fixion" instead, which was at least pronounced exactly the same). However, the more the service is used, the better it will get.

"Look at Skype Translator right now as a 7-year-old or 10-year-old child," Yasmin Khan, Skype's director of product marketing, explained. The tool is proficient at its languages, but it may make some grammatical or vocabulary errors from time to time. "But, as people use it more, it graduates to a high level or college level. By the time you get to the college level, you get to be conversational."

With an update going out today, Skype Translator is now built into the Windows desktop app, and it will come to more devices in the not-too-distant future. Now, if this technology could just get boiled down and sped-up, so we could use it for real-time, in-person conversations...our worldwide travels would be so much easier.

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