Translation tech: We’re getting there…

Language barriers seem to be frustrating us more than ever before. What cognitive dissonance it is that in today’s globalized world we can get in touch so easily but still be unable to communicate. For this reason Rosetta Stone is a $300-million company and growing every year, and language-instruction apps like Duolingo and MindSnacks are coming out all the time.

We have fantasies of Matrix-like brain implants that give you instant fluency in any language you’d like to install. Nearly as futuristic but actually existent is Word Lens, an app that translates written language that you point to with your smartphone’s camera (and actually works quite well). The company was recently bought by Google, who is implementing the technology in their Glass productOur dreams of instant communication with speakers of other language are still far off, but we’ve certainly come a long way from pocket phrasebooks.

MuuziiNext up is Muuzii, which promises to be an instant, SMS-based translation service. The basic use-case is this: Two people who don’t speak the same language both have basic cellphones. Person One types a message in his language to Muuzii, and Muuzii quickly responds with the message translated to Person Two’s language. Person One can then forward or sound out the message to get it to Person Two. It’s a subscription-based service (quite reasonable at less than $5/month) that currently works on AT&T but is planned for all U.S. carriers soon.

They have a promotion going on right now where you can try out the service for free from any carrier. I tried it out, and I was somewhat disappointed. Here’s why:

As I see it, Muuzii has three main claims to fame. It follows through on two of them, but flops on the third. One: It’s meant to be fast, and it certainly is. In my tests, the response always came within a second or two. Two: Dumbphones welcome. Since it’s an SMS-based service, you don’t need a smartphone. That’s key; we like to think that everyone has a smartphone these days, but that’s just not the case.

Three: There’s a real, live person doing the translating (supposedly). Here’s where Muuzii doesn’t live up to its potential—at least not yet. The problem with machine-based translators is that they’re not infallible. They generally aren’t good with casual sentences, slang and idioms, first of all. And what if you spell something wrong? What if you tried to write something, but inadvertently spelled a different word? An actual person would see what you meant, but not a machine. I was really excited to hear that Muuzii has “a robust team of skilled linguists on-call 24/7,” because such a team could translate so much better than a machine. But in practice, Muuzii can’t seem to translate spelling errors. In my test, I sent the query:

did the untied sttates win the game agains Germanny?

And Muuzii replied in Spanish:

¿los sttates desatados ganó el juego agains Germanny?

The translation is interesting. Muuzii caught that sttates was meant to be plural, even if it couldn’t manage to translate it. Strangly, it gave me the verb conjugation ganó, which is for third-person singular, when it had already identified the subject as plural. It correctly translated untied (plural) as desatados, but it didn’t realize that I actually meant united rather than untied.

I believe a “robust team of skilled linguists” would have been able to translate my original sentence perfectly. Maybe they would have included fun spelling errors of their own—but that’s a discussion for a class on translation theory. Perhaps it’s the case that Muuzii isn’t showcasing the true extent of their product during this free trial (which would be a shame, because then what’s the point?), or maybe they’re simply over-promising.

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One thought on “Translation tech: We’re getting there…

  1. Very interesting, as usual!

    There’s still a long way to go (so I’m learning a couple of other languages to cover a tiny lilttle part of the world^^). When I try Bing translator on facebook, what a mess! I can understand as much even if I never learnt the language!
    You are right: only people, for the time being, have enough brains to get around tricky expressions or inadvertent mistakes. But I think that, given more time to set up a wider range of abilities making them able to face a wider range of possibilities, machines should, some day, be approaching human skills.

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