Star Trek fans know of the Universal Communicator, which is a part of the Star Fleet logo worn on their chests. It instantly translates alien speech into English and vice versa, enabling inter-species communication. We've all wanted something like that, and Microsoft is getting very close with Skype Translate.
Skype Translate is a function in its Skype communication tool that translates languages in real time. It takes English audio and converts it to the foreign language in both audio and text. The audio comes out in a natural-sounding voice, instead of the usual computer-generated voice, and text is displayed in the Skype client.
"Today, we meet another chapter for Skype Translator on our journey to enrich the way we communicate with family and friends around the world. Our long term goal is to translate as many languages as possible on all relevant platforms, and deliver the best Skype Translator experience for our more than 300 million connected customers," Yasmin Khan of the Skype team wrote in a blog post.
Microsoft initially introduced it with Spanish translations, understandable given the ubiquity of Spanish in the Americas, and is now rolling out Italian and Mandarin Chinese. The latter makes sense, but Italian was a bit of a pleasant surprise. The Skype team said in the blog post that it received a lot of feedback requesting Italian from people who signed up for the Skype Translator preview test program.
Not that I need it. The entire Italian side of my family (on my father's side, obviously, given my surname) is here in the U.S., but my mother is German and all of her family is in Germany. We've tried Skyping in the past and the language barrier was a real nuisance for me.
The Skype team called mandarin a "very challenging language to learn, even for Skype Translator." That's because there are around 10,000 characters and multiple tones to master, making it one of the most difficult languages to program.
The Italian side was presumably much easier. Skype already had Spanish and both languages have a Latin root with a lot of overlap. Having taken Italian in college, I can somewhat make out the constant stream of Spanish I hear living in Southern California.
Last December, a friend at Microsoft asked me to help test the Italian translation, so my father was brought into the effort since he is a native speaker. He said that as long as he stayed away from dialect, it worked fairly well. The delays were minimal and the translations were only occasionally off. The caveat was that he had to keep his Italian as "clean" as possible; no dialect, no accent. No doubt, a Louisiana Cajun would throw Skype with their accent.
The latest update also added a few new features, including the option to hear instant messages people send you in the language of your choice, continuous recognition, automatic volume control to match the translation as your partner is speaking, and a mute option to turn the translated audio on or off if you'd prefer to just read the translated text.
This is a separate version of the Skype client, so you have to sign up to use the preview.