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Matinee Blog

Does speech translation signal the end for real-life interpreters?

Microsoft has recently revealed software that can analyse your speech, translate it into 26 languages and then produce a new recording of your very own voice speaking in your chosen foreign language. It’s Star Trek’s “Universal Translator” brought to life! Take a look at the video below which shows the moment Microsoft unveiled their technology to the Chinese market and gave the audience a demonstration.

This technological advance could have repercussions for the translation industry as a whole. On the other hand, every industry experiences hurdles along the way and Microsoft’s latest development in voice translation technology is one in a long line of threats that has impacted the translation industry. When broken down, this new technology is essentially a more sophisticated form of machine translation and machine translation is not a new concept.

In fact, the prominent rise of social networking in recent years has created yet another market for machine translation software – in applications such as Facebook, or instant messaging software such as Skype and MSN Messenger – allowing users speaking different languages to communicate with each other. But who will be the end consumer of Microsoft’s new technology? There has already been a lot of discussion about apps and it being used on Windows phones but the key question is when will it make it to market? The technology and time required to implement this technology for the mass market is a long time away.

There is a long way to go before we are all walking about with a Universal Translator à la Captain Kirk!

Douglas Hofstadter, an author on machine intelligence has said that “Understanding the world is what humans are good at and what machines are no good at, at all,” This quote epitomises the problem with machine translation – machines can translate words, but they cannot translate meaning. By definition, a machine or a piece of software will never understand the meaning of anything. And you cannot translate if you don’t understand the meaning.

We can conclude then, that in its current state, machine translation, even with the additional of voice recognition will not be able to reproduce the linguistic nuances of a human being and therefore the need for high quality translation and localisation will ensure that human translation services will not be jeopardised in the near future. Some even argue that the errors machine translation software makes actually increases the profitability of translation agencies since someone has to correct the mistakes!