Translation Apps: Hype-Deflator, BBC-Style

The closing weeks of 2014 featured tech titans Google and Microsoft unveiling major service enhancements to Google Translate and Skype.  Sure, the theoretical potential is huge.  And the emotional branding of enhanced understanding across cultures as sincere as it is practical and noble.  But skeptics of the world - don't prepare to retire your point of view just yet.

This BBC piece sent an English-speaking journalist to test  Google Translate via smartphone while in Bilbao, the capital of Spain's basque country. Nice, de-centered choice.

Amusing reportage tidbits include

Despite near-perfect conditions - indoors with no background noise and a volunteer who was familiar with the concept of the real-time translators - it initially struggled to convey relatively simple phrases....

...the app had to face an even stiffer test - one that exposed what is perhaps its biggest weaknesses: background noise and the rigours of real life.... [the woman I approached to ask for directions, took a moment] By the time she had grasped the concept of listening for a translation into Spanish and answering the question clearly and slowly - delivering the directions bit-by-bit and waiting for the app to catch up - a sudden hailstorm had struck, shaking her resolve to persevere with struggling software and British tourist alike.

Finally, the correspondent tracks down an expert, Joseba Abaitua, an academic at the modern foreign languages department at Bilbao's University of Deusto.  The Professor advises patience, as much from the limitations of the translation technology with colloquial conversation as for the novel social interaction of strangers with a third party, the phone.  

Interacting via a smartphone while face-to-face with someone else is always going to be "awkward".


Well done, BBC.  Silicon Valley - don't lose heart!