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Instagram: lost in translation no longer

Instagram, the photo- and video-sharing app, announced the introduction of automatic translation, to be rolled out over the coming month.

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    A screen displays the Instagram logo during a presentation in New York December 12, 2013.
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In keeping with other social media giants, Instagram has decided to offer automatic translation, which the photo- and video-sharing service says it will roll out over the coming month.

Wednesday's announcement came just one day after the Facebook-owned mobile phone app revealed it has doubled its user base in two years, now boasting more than 500 million.

With 80 percent of Instagram users now based outside the United States, the company is keen to banish any barriers that may hamper people’s ability to communicate.

“The Instagram community has grown faster and become more global than we ever imagined,” reads a post on the official Instagram account. “And we’re excited that you’ll soon be able to understand the full story of a moment, no matter what language you speak.”

For those people who enjoy reading other languages, there is no cause for concern: bios, comments and captions will still initially appear in the original language. But there will be a translation button for those less proficient in other tongues, giving users access to information and opinions that may previously have eluded them.

Initially, this tool will be limited by the number of languages the app supports: currently 24. But, bearing in mind its parent company, Facebook, now offers more than 70, it seems likely this will expand.

“If translations aren't showing up, it could be because we couldn't detect or don't currently support the language,” reads a post on Instagram’s help pages. “Keep in mind that translations also may not show up for older posts and comments.”

But Instagram is arriving late to a battle already well under way, as tech behemoths jockey to outdo one another in their translating prowess.

Google, for example, now offers 103 languages in its translation system, stating that this covers 99 percent of the online population. This milestone was reached in February, when the company added 13 new languages to its ecosystem, including Kurdish, Samoan, and Scots Gaelic.

Just one month earlier, Skype, the video-calling software now owned by Microsoft, rolled out its real-time translation software, which allows voice-to-voice translation in seven languages and text-to-text in 50 languages.

So, what lies behind this apparent drive to become the digital world’s preeminent translation tool?

“At stake is a translation services industry that generates roughly $37 billion in revenue a year and continues to grow,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s Corey Fedde. “As companies and economies become increasingly global there is a greater need to be able to communicate with new markets and new employees. Online translation tools could help tech companies corner an industry that is still dominated by regional translators.”

As for Instagram, with its ballooning fanbase, observers say it is likely hoping this new tool will add an extra edge over its competitors, boosting its global appeal and facilitating its reach across borders.

“Whether you’re an illustrator, a sneakerhead or an astronaut on the International Space Station, every photo and video you share helps bring people closer to friends and interests, broadens perspectives and inspires a sense of wonder,” reads the company’s post, celebrating its attainment of 500 million users.

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