Translation and Interpreting Apps on your Smart Phone - are they any good?

28th Jan 2013

Recently, Japan’s biggest mobile network, NTT Docomo has launched a new app offering real-time translations to allow people in Japan to speak to foreigners over the phone with both parties using their native tongue without the need for a phone interpreter. Initially, NTT Docomo will convert Japanese to English, Mandarin and Korean, with other languages to follow.

This is the latest in a  series of telephone conversation translators to launch in recent months with companies now including Microsoft and Alcatel-Lucent among those working on similar solutions.

Potentially, a successful translator app can help companies reduce costs by avoiding to having to employ multilingual staff as well as being extremely useful in business sectors such as tourism. However, the software involved cannot produce perfect translations and therefore may not be practical in some situations, e.g. the healthcare sector or business negotiations.

Translation and Cloud technology

NTT Docomo unveiled its Hanashite Hon'yaku app for Android devices at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (Ceatec) show in Japan in late 2012. As well as providing voice translations of the other speaker’s conversation after a slight pause, it also provides a text translation. 

According to the firm’s statement, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai will be added, raising the number of non-Japanese languages for translation to ten. "Fast and accurate translations are possible with any smartphone, regardless of device specifications, because Hanashite Hon'yaku utilises Docomo's cloud [remote computer servers] for processing."

Landline Translations

NTT Docomo will soon face competition from France's Alcatel-Lucent which is developing a rival product, WeTalk. It can handle Japanese and about a dozen other languages including English, French and Arabic.

Alactel-Lucent is designed to work over any landline telephone, meaning the company has had to find a way to do speech recognition. The company uses a patented technology to capture the user's voice and enhance it before applying speech recognition software. The data is then run through translation software before being run through a speech synthesiser.

The firm said all this could be done in less than a second. However, it has opted to wait before the speaker has stopped talking before starting the translation after experiments carried out with workers at insurance company Axa suggested users preferred the experience.

Lost In Translation

The biggest problems facing these companies is enabling their software to adapt itself to the different ways people pronounce words and different accents. Problems would also occur with idioms such as ‘pulling my leg’ or similar sounding words such as ‘would’ and ‘wood’. Context is everything!

The human translation industry is worth US$14bn a year and these companies are trying to enter this lucrative market, but the technology may not be completely there just yet.

Conversations where the participants are patient enough to speak carefully and repeat themselves often may occur on holiday, but may not be so common in business and professional situations and therefore the usage of this technology is still limited. Human translation is still more reliable and it is difficult to see this being replaced in the short term.

Alesia Zolnowska, Interpreting Coordinator


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