Earlier this month, Microsoft confirmed it would be rolling out Skype Translator on Windows devices, with a new update for the video calling app. Nearly four weeks later and all but everyone with Windows PCs, laptops and Surface tablets should have received the update.
With the app updated you’ll see a small globe icon appear, which turns on Translator with a single click. The translation software now includes six voice languages – English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin – in addition to 50 further languages for text-only messaging.
Not perfect, but getting better
Even simple conversations over Translator show there are improvements to be made, but Microsoft has achieved an impressive standard of quality. Machine translation is imperfect by nature, but Translator goes a long way to making casual communication possible between speakers of different languages.
Microsoft itself admits the technology is still in its early days, but the progress it has made is an achievement by its own merit. This is a free piece of software we’re talking about too. And while six voice languages barely put a dent in the roughly 6,500 that exist in the world, it’s a huge improvement on the two languages it showcased at launch.
It hasn’t been without its glitches of course – most notably an embarrassing stint of turning Mandarin into swear words -– but Skype is venturing into its first Asian language, which is no small feat.
More hurdles ahead for Skype Translator
It’s a hugely ambitious project undertaken by Microsoft, but audio translation has become an increasingly lucrative market for the giants in consumer tech. However, Skype’s venture into Mandarin proves just how much of a task it has on its hands.
Translation between Spanish and Italian will be much easier for the software, because of similarities shared by each language. However, Mandarin is completely distinct in terms of grammar, context, culture and ideology – not to mention vocabulary and writing systems!
A sign of Microsoft’s ambition with Skype Translator
So Mandarin is certainly Microsoft’s most ambitious target language so far, but it’s a smart choice all the same. Chinese Mandarin is the world’s most widely spoken language (at least in terms of numbers) with China, Singapore and Hong Kong making up three of the world’s business capitals.
All this could suggest the tech firm is confident it can one, day achieve, the standards needed of audio translation for high-end boardrooms. Which makes sense in many ways, because there’s little money to be made in a free app that lets people sit in their bedroom and chat to strangers around the world.
The real challenge for Microsoft – and every other firm in the audio translation field – is the high level of accuracy demanded in corporate, legal and other settings where big money and reputation are on the line.