Skype's universal translator bridges the language gap, mostly

Skype has unveiled a new feature for Windows users – a real time translator for instant messages. Users can translate voice-to-voice in seven languages and text-to-text in over 50.

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    Skype Chief Executive Officer Tony Bates (L) speaks as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer listens at their joint news conference in San Francisco, May 10, 2011. Skype is now allowing Windows users to talk to anyone with their real time translator.
    Susana Bates/Reuters/File
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Skype now offers the ability to speak seven different languages.

Microsoft has completed rolling out Skype’s real time translation software to all Windows users, according to a new press release. The video and voice calling platform, founded in Estonia in 2003 and purchased by Microsoft in 2011, now offers a global range of languages available for real-time translation over video chat and text. 

Skype Translator is currently available for free for all Windows users. Available languages for real time translation over video chat include Mandarin, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. 

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"We launched Skype Translator preview just over a year ago in partnership with Microsoft Translator," the blog post reads. "Skype Translator has come a long way since then."

Skype launched its Skype Translator preview roughly a year ago in December in partnership with Microsoft Translator. The stated goal of the program was “to make it possible for people to communicate irrespective of what language they speak,” according to a Skype press release from 2014. The preview started with two languages, Spanish and English. By June, when Skype announced the Skype Translator would be coming to the Windows desktop app, the preview featured four languages, English, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin. According to Skype’s latest release, the current most popular language translation is French to English.

The real-time translator works in video chats. During the demonstration at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in 2014, presenters spoke one at a time with a brief pause after they finished speaking. A computerized voice would then translate what they had said and a small window at the bottom of the screen displayed the translation in text.

Though presenters spoke carefully and clearly, some small errors could be seen in the translations. The how-to video released by Skype in October also emphasized speaking clearly and leaving enough time for the translator. The software filters out most “um"s and “ah"s before translation.

Skype Translator offers an exciting tool for cross-language communication with potential, but still struggles to grasp the intricacies of human speech, John Pavlus of the MIT Technology Review reported, sometimes struggling to determine the meaning of a word based on context.

“If software is translating between American and British English, and it recognizes the word ‘football,’ it also needs to know when to change it to ‘soccer’ and when to keep it as ‘football’ or ‘gridiron,’” says Christopher Manning, a professor of linguistics and computer science in Stanford University’s Natural Language Processing Group, explained to the MIT Technology Review. 

The team behind the Skype Translator is also aware that the system isn’t perfect. Vikram Dendi, strategy director at Microsoft Research, told the MIT Technology Review some of the struggles.

When we watch these things in action on TV [as on Star Trek], it seems so obvious: you just speak and it comes out translated. But when you start digging into the actual implementation and put it in people’s hands to use, there are so many little details that can make or break the experience 

Skype said at the launch of Skype Translator preview in 2014 the feature relies on machine learning, “which means that the more the technology is used, the smarter it gets.”

Beyond the seven languages available for voice-to-voice translation, fifty languages are also available for translation via text-to-text translation. Those translations take place over texting between instant messages on Skype.

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