Found in Translation

Technology is helping knock down international language barriers. Is a universal translation tool far behind?

In one sense, doing business across global borders has never been easier. Looking to source raw textiles from Turkey or wholesale electronics from China? Online marketplaces such as GlobalSources.com and DHgate.com can link you with suppliers in moments. Starting a niche e-commerce operation? You can ship packages to nearly any destination in two or three days — and to many major world markets overnight. Need to collaborate with partners on the other side of the planet? Email and Skype can keep you connected 24/7.

But there’s still one challenge that’s remarkably difficult to overcome: the language barrier. Language miscommunications can create invisible boundaries that lead to a range of problems — many of them costly. A study of more than 500 executives by the research unit of The Economist found that language errors had torpedoed major international business deals for more than half of them.

But that situation could be on the cusp of serious change, thanks to technology that seemed unthinkable even a few years ago.

Google Translate

Translate has long been a go-to tool for people who travel overseas or live in foreign countries. And now Google has unveiled free iOS and Android apps that offer real-time sign and voice translation for 90 languages. Both are remarkably simple. To decipher, say, a road sign, simply take a picture of it with your smartphone and the app will overlay the translated text on the screen. The voice function is just as straightforward: Tap a microphone icon, begin speaking and the app provides translated audio or text to your conversation partner.

Google Translate is available for the Android Wear line of wearable devices, and it can work without an internet or cellular connection. You can find it in the Apple Store and at Google Play.

Microsoft Translator

Microsoft’s recently released Translator iOS and Android app features virtually the same functionality as the Google app. According to the company, it works with 50 different languages and is compatible with Google Wear and — unlike Google Translate — it also works with the Apple Watch. Just as with Google Translate, you can find it at the Apple Store and Google Play.

Skype Translator

While Skype’s new offering remains in the beta stage, it promises to serve as a useful tool for anyone who uses the service to communicate internationally. Simply speak in your native tongue on a voice or video call on a Skype-enabled device, and your words will be translated into the recipient’s language — and vice versa. The service also provides an on-screen text transcript of the conversation and allows you to send instant messages in 50 different languages.

Still, there are drawbacks. The translations are only available in near-real time, meaning that your conversations will feature slight lags. And Skype only offers translations between English, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, French and German (although the company says more languages are on the way).

What lies ahead?

These are only a few of the translation tools currently available. Run a quick online search, and you’ll find a handful of others. Here are two caveats to all of them: The technology remains in its infancy, and even the best apps don’t quite yet offer a truly elegant experience.

That said, the industry is working on new solutions, some of which feel like science fiction. IBM, for instance, has created computer chips that essentially mimic the activity of a brain’s nerve cells. The company recently reported it has created a system of chips with 48 million digital neurons. These and other developments could help make universal instant language translation a reality before long.

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