Breaking Language Barriers

With the help of Skype Translator, the world is your oyster.

Breaking Languages Feature

In our interconnected world, rapidity of communication is tantamount. Whether you’re a frequent traveler on business or pleasure, understanding a foreign-language speaker can make or break your interaction. Until now, cram courses and phrase books were the only resources available to those in need of linguistic aid. Not anymore.

A decade in the making, Skype Translator is a new technology that enables online video and audio calls and instant messages between people who speak different languages. As one communicates via a computer, tablet, smartphone, or other mobile device, the program provides a live translation of the conversation. It’s like having a personal translator that, according to Microsoft, Skype’s parent company, “will open up endless possibilities for people around the world to connect, communicate, and collaborate.”

Take Pro Mujer, for example. The New York-based nonprofit dedicates itself to helping low-income women in Latin America through micro-finance efforts, health-care services, and education. However, many of its field-office workers only speak Spanish. So, to facilitate communication and build relationships, the organization turned to Skype Translator.

Woman Breaking LanguagesHere’s how it works: suppose you speak English and want to video-chat with someone who speaks Spanish. As the other person speaks in Spanish, you receive a text translation in English, and vice versa. You also have the option to choose a male or female voice for a simultaneous audio translation. Microsoft eventually plans to introduce translation in users’ own voices. Upon finishing the call, you can view a transcript of your conversation.

It sounds simple, but it was actually incredibly difficult to engineer. “The complexity of human language makes this sort of translation very difficult,” explains Jost Zetzsche of the American Translators Association. Behind the scenes, tech wizardry makes it all happen. To convert dialogue, cloud-based software engages in a process that analyzes speech “against audio snippets from millions of previously recorded samples” to transform audio into text. To do that, the company researched how we communicate via social media, texts, and regular conversation. The results pass through a correction phase to erase “ums, “ahs,” stutters, repetitions, and similar “disfluencies.” Then comes the actual language translation.

“It’s an intense process during which a mistake can happen at any point,” explains Jason Eisner of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Language and Speech Processing.

Skype Conversation

From English to Klingon

Skype Translator is available on devices that use Windows 8.1 and offers translation for voice and video calls in four languages (more are planned):


For instant messaging, the program supports fifty languages, which extend beyond our solar system to include Klingon, and other exotic tongues such as:

Yucatec Maya
Hmong Daw

As if all that weren’t complex enough, there’s also “machine learning,” whereby the software increasingly improves its performance as it analyzes more data on individual linguistic idiosyncrasies to build greater speed and accuracy. It’s through this process that Skype Translator learns to differentiate between homophones like “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” decipher punctuation and sentence structure, and account for accents, cadence, and other quirks. This bottom-up model means the more people use the technology, the smarter it will get.

It’s far from perfect. The program still struggles with handling different grammatical rules and deciphering mispronunciation, enunciation, and tone.

“It’s most often the nuances that machines have trouble picking up,” explains Zetzsche. “But those nuances can make all the difference in meaning.”

Some of these complications arise because most machines were fed an abundance of text to teach them to translate, an effort that fails to account for the plethora of idiosyncrasies associated with speech. At times, all these potential snags cause the system to mangle words and mistake meaning.

Nevertheless, since most people are pretty good at inferring and correcting for context, users report they are able to understand each other and get the gist of a conversation.

Meanwhile, given the slight delay between when you speak and when words appear on screen, you are forced to pause more often than you would in regular conversation. “But what’s better?” Zetzsche asks. “Not having a conversation at all because you don’t speak the same language or having a slight delay?” Besides, human translators come with similar issues.

Unlike its human equivalent, Skype Translator is free, making it ideal for people who don’t need, can’t afford, or don’t have access to professional services. “This can be a great humanitarian tool,” explains Rebecca Petras of the nonprofit group Translators Without Borders. “Imagine there’s an earthquake in Chile. International aid organizations can use the technology to communicate updates and advice quickly with locals on the ground who speak only Spanish.”

While the technology would also likely suffice for family members, students looking to study across geographies, or travelers eager to meet locals, it isn’t accurate enough yet for businesses with higher expectations and different needs than the average person.

“Eventually, we will crack the problems inherent in the technology,” says Eisner. In the meantime, human transcribers needn’t fear filing for unemployment any time soon.

[©Image 3 courtesy of GongTo/]

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