I can’t express surprise to the news Google is working on a real-time voice translator for the Android platform. Sci-fi geeks have dreamed of hi-tech translators for years, and Google’s Android research department is a geek-rich environment.
Even the name of the under-development app, Babel Fish, is a nod to geekdom. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Babel fish is a tiny fish which, when stuck in your ear, allows you to understand every language instantly.
Android VP Hugo Barra expressed great excitement when he talked about Babel fish, calling the app a “universal translator” in a not-so-subtle reference to the Star Trek universe. According to Barra, the app will eventually allow two people speaking different languages to have conversations, with each person hearing a translation of the other’s native tongue.
Barra boasts Babel Fish provides almost 100 percent accuracy under controlled lab conditions with no background noise, although he admits certain language pairings work better than others. This makes complete sense. Presumably the software works better for related languages such as Spanish and French, rather than for very different languages such as Chinese and Basque.
Of course, few of us make phone calls in conditions where background noise isn’t a problem, and Barra admits ambient noise results in a decrease in the app’s accuracy.
Presuming Babel Fish doesn’t mimic your own voice (an unlikely event), what will users hear after translation? Will the app be able to identify age and gender, or will it opt for a single, Siri-like voice? Will the app be able to duplicate emotion and tone?
This is more important than you think. If one speaker is a burly, angry male in his fifties, hearing a sultry twenty-year-old female voice deliver his tirade in measured tones changes how the message is received, if not the actual message.
Breaking Down Barriers
The announcement of Babel Fish is exciting, and with Google backing the project it certainly won’t lack for funding. The first company to produce a reliable translator stands to gain more than just bragging rights — the financial rewards would be obscenely high.
Of course, marketing any translator as accurate carries with it a risk. What happens if the phone makes a mistake? If one speaker mentions she wants a drink, what will the other do if the app mistranslates the comment as “I need 12 Palms addiction rehab center”?
Okay, hardly a likely scenario I’ll grant you, but the possibility for translation mistakes does exist, and it wouldn’t take too many mistranslations to render a conversation incomprehensible. To really succeed, Google needs to reduce the risk of such mistakes to almost zero, no matter the level of ambient noise.
Or maybe mistranslations won’t be the problem. After all, in Hitchhiker’s Guide the Babel fish sparks bloody, galaxy-wide conflict —not because of mistranslations, but because people finally understood what they were saying to each other.