Why Google is investing in global translation

Google Translate added 13 new languages to its portfolio, bringing the total count to 103. The innovation is the latest in a growing competition between tech companies to be the dominant language translation tool.  

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File
Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Alphabet Inc, Jan. 3, 2013. Google Translate now understands 103 languages.

The term “language barrier” may soon be outdated as new, powerful translation tools, from apps to widgets to websites, hit the market.

On Wednesday, Google announced its latest translation innovation in a blog post. Google Translate has introduced 13 new languages to its portfolio. The translation system can now translate 103 languages and covers 99 percent of the online population, according to the tech giant’s own estimates.

The news of Google’s language expansion came a little over a month after Skype, owned by rival tech company Microsoft, rolled out real-time text translation over video chat and text conversations with Skype Translator.

With the race to be the preeminent translation tool growing more competitive, what’s at stake and why are tech companies so interested?

"More than ever, companies of every size are looking to expand their market and to engage with customers on a deeper level," Rick Antezana, a partner with Seattle based translation provider Dynamic Language, told Inc. in 2014. "Consumers worldwide want everything on their own terms, and that includes a preference for communicating in their own language."

The same could be said for global employees. "An organization like Starbucks has to support their employees and customers, so every aspect of what they do, including human resources, has to be translated," Mr. Antezana added later in the Inc. interview.

At stake is a translation services industry that generates roughly $37 billion in revenue a year and continues to grow, according to estimates from the consulting group Common Sense Advisory. 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.

For Internet-reliant Silicon Valley tech services such as Google and Skype, efforts to make the Internet more accessible to non-English speaking markets could help existing aspects of their businesses.

“We’ve still got lots of work to do: more than half of the content on the Internet is in English, but only around 20% of the world’s population speaks English,” Google said in a July blog post.

Google Translate’s new language additions could be a sign the tech company was serious about investing more resources to bridge the global language gap on the Internet.

The 13 new languages include Amharic, Corsican, Frisian, Kyrgyz, Hawaiian, Kurdish (Kurmanji), Luxembourgish, Samoan, Scots Gaelic, Shona, Sindhi, Pashto, and Xhosa, according to the blog post. Google Translate started in 2006 with English, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.

Google Translate works on phones and desktops and allows users to speak, type, hand-write, or take a picture of a language and translate it into one of the other languages offered. On Android, some translation features are available offline, without access to the Internet.

The current rating for the Google Translate app is 4.4 in the Android app market and 4 stars in Apple’s App Store. However, reviews of the translation tool reveal some of its limitations. Most complaints focus around the offline version and translation limitations from English to less common languages such as Urdu and Irish Gaelic.

Reactions to the addition of 13 more languages for Google Translate have overall appeared positive.

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