Gilster: Online translation tools are good - and getting better

If you’re going to travel throughout the universe, as Douglas Adams imagined in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” you’ll want to take along a Babel Fish. Adams’ hero, Arthur Dent, found that by pushing one of these small yellow creatures into his ear, he was able to understand anything said to him in any language. The Babel Fish, then, was a universal translator, if an uncomfortable one to use, and it allowed Dent to understand things he wished he didn’t, such as Vogon poetry. This is a joke if you’re familiar with the series, and I highly recommend the books if you’re not.

Universal translators go back to a science fiction writer named Murray Leinster, who imagined humans talking to extraterrestrials with a device that made instant understanding possible. You can see what a boon a universal translator is to a TV producer, which is why Gene Roddenberry quickly wove one into “Star Trek.” After all, if every episode involved your crew having to figure out the language of this week’s cast of aliens, Capt. Kirk would have had little else to do.

Valuable tools

We’re a long way from universal translators, but I do find ongoing work on translation fascinating. In fact, although I use translation tools every day, I’m still astounded by how well they work. I routinely correspond with an Italian contact who sends me news from the astronomical community in northern Italy. He speaks no English and I have no Italian, so I rely on Google Translate to respond to messages that Google has already turned into English for me in Gmail.

I can also use the Chrome browser to translate Web pages into a kind of English, which is how I keep up with developments in the Russian space program. And when news breaks fast, as it did recently with the horrific slayings in Paris, I used Twitter for quick translations from French.

This last point deserves expansion because Twitter is how many of us check on breaking stories, and people who are tweeting from the scene may be using any number of languages. Twitter used Microsoft’s Bing Translator engine to offer translation during the 2014 World Cup and then removed the feature. But now it’s back on Twitter’s Tweetdeck software, which is what you want to use if you’re a serious Twitter user or a journalist.

Service improving

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Microsoft’s Skype Translator. The technology allows two people speaking different languages over Skype to understand each other in real time. In December, Skype started offering simultaneous English/Spanish translation, although with the same caveats that accompany Google Translate: The software makes lots of mistakes, and aims only at giving you a general idea of what the other party is saying. It’s also a bit awkward, requiring each user to pause to let the translation complete, and to speak slowly and clearly.

Skype has a waiting list of people eager to try out what is now a service in testing, but to me the possibilities here are stunning. Services such as these can be counted on to improve as the computers that drive them examine the results and adjust for mistakes. Simultaneous translation between English and Spanish, in other words, is the beginning of a translation technology that will soon expand to numerous other languages and become much more natural to use.

Watch Google respond with a tune-up of its smartphone app that will allow it to recognize a popular language in an online conversation and turn it into text in real time. I’m also hearing that Google is working on an upgrade that will let you point your phone at a street sign in a foreign city and have the information converted into the language of choice. Half a billion people already use Google Translate, and if we’re not yet at the Babel Fish level, we’re still headed in an exciting, multilingual direction.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at