Thursday, February 12, 2015

Let me translate that

Over the last week or so, I have been demonstrating Google Translate with colleagues. Maybe you have used the Google Translate website to translate text from a website. For example, my involvement in open source software often puts me in contact with folks from around the world. Sometimes, a contributor will not have enough English to express themselves, so they will write to me using their native language. While I am conversationally fluent in Spanish, I'm not able to follow a more technical conversation in Spanish or any other language. So I often rely on Google Translate to help me. The translation is never perfect, but it's enough that I can understand the message.

There is also a Google Translate app on Android and on iPhone. The app includes several important features, including some recent impressive additions. Point your phone's camera at a sign, and the app will translate the text "on the fly" and display the translation on your screen. It really is like magic. Again, the translation may not be perfect, but it's enough that if you are lost while traveling abroad, you can get around.

To help you in conversations, your phone can act as the intermediary, listening to both sides of a conversation and translating where appropriate. You can speak an English phrase, and the phone will repeat the translation in your selected language- for example, in Italian. As the other person replies in Italian, your phone will repeat the translation in English. With enough context, the translation should be good enough to help you converse with others in a different language.

As I demonstrate these features, I don't position Google Translate as a replacement for learning another language. Rather, our students traveling abroad or studying overseas might find Google Translate useful in getting around. The app opens new doors to communicate. Especially during emergencies when you might not have someone else to translate for you, Google Translate can make the difference.

This was recently exhibited when paramedics responded to help a Congolese woman about to give birth in Ireland. From an article in, while en route to hospital, the woman suddenly went into labor. The paramedics "pulled over to the side of the road in order to deliver the baby, but the woman spoke limited English. That’s when Gerry had a lightbulb moment and opened up Google Translate on his phone in order to communicate with the woman." Through the app, the paramedics were able to help the woman deliver her baby girl.
image: Google

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