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TECHNOLOGY

Skype app to offer simultaneous translation during video calls

The service will be available in Spanish and English to start, with more languages planned

The service will launch first for computers and tablets running Windows 8.1 and Surface.
The service will launch first for computers and tablets running Windows 8.1 and Surface.

Can two people understand each other without speaking the same language, and without the aid of an interpreter? Telecommunications app Skype is putting the technology in motion to make that possible. The next update to the service – still without an official release date – will allow you to speak in English to someone else speaking in Spanish, and vice versa. It does so by translating what you say into another language in “near real-time,” according to the company. You then hear a translation of what the person on the other end of the call says back, with an on-screen transcript of the conversation displayed on the screen as the conversation continues.

Skype Translator has been tested on more than 50,000 volunteers in the last two weeks. The company plans to roll the technology out gradually to other users, though it believes it could be available to everyone within eight months. According to Skype Vice President Gurdeep Pall, those with PCs or tablets running Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 or Surface operating systems will receive it first, followed by users with earlier versions of Windows and other operating systems.

The company believes the technology could be available to all users within eight months

After that, the next step is to get the service going in up to 40 languages. “It’s very important to be the first to make this step, in making communication between people who don’t speak the same language simple,” Pall explains.

Owned by Microsoft since 2011, Skype is not planning on charging for using the service but rather wants to encourage people to adopt it for both professional and personal use.

Pall stresses the importance of innovation: “It has never been done before. The advances in processing natural speech have made it possible. The more it’s used, the better it will work. Putting it more simply, you could say the system ‘learns.’ It uses what is called machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence that analyzes the data and creates patterns out of the best choices. This also allows it to distinguish and be able to translate when different accents are spoken. […] We’ve even included Klingon.”

Skype says the translations will be more accurate when the sentences are long

The service lets you choose between a female and a male voice that, at the moment at least, do not sound especially natural – rather like those used on GPS navigation systems.

EL PAÍS has tried out the new technology and the feeling is a little strange. If you speak a bit of the language the other person is using, there’s a big temptation to answer some questions in their language. But that’s where trouble starts. During our half-hour test, there were a few, almost comical mix-ups: when the English speaker said it was 50ºF in Seattle, the system translated it as a reference to the 1950s.

Skype says the translations are more accurate with longer sentences, which makes sense since, that way, the system has more references to match against each other. Likewise the firm stresses that many mistakes are the result of people stopping in the middle of a sentence.