Preview: Skype Translator

When Microsoft demonstrated Skype Translator in May last year I was, grudgingly, quite impressed.

The real time voice translation, while not perfect was still pretty good – the best I’d ever seen, in fact, aside from a flesh-and-blood interpreter.

Predictably then, I signed up to the preview program in November ticking the boxes to say I’d like to give it a go in English, the other languages I speak and the languages spoken by every single ESL friend I have – assuming they were on there.

Skype Translator preview

So, when my invitation to download this finally came through I was, while sceptical (I’m always sceptical about commercial machine translation), pretty excited, too.

Within minutes of the download completing and opening up the app, however, that excitement quickly faded, and was replaced by amusement, exasperation and disappointment.

Skype Translator: features

Skype Translator looks very similar to normal Skype, except when you click on a contact various translation options appear on the left hand side.

The program offers two modes of translation, text based for instant messaging (IM) and voice translation for calls, both of which are carried out more-or-less simultaneously.

On the IM side of things, this early version of Skype Translator comes with dozens of languages, including Urdu, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese and even Klingon. There are, sadly, no sub-Saharan languages, though.

Despite this vast array of languages, nearly all our potential co-testers, other than one French native speaker, were ruled out as the software only works on Windows 8 and above – most of the other would-be partners still run Windows 7 or have a Mac.

Skype Translator preview - IM translation

The software has another bizarre quirk: you don’t set your own spoken and written language when starting a conversation with another person, they set it for you on their side, and vice versa. This is initially quite confusing and can lead to longer setup times.

Skype Translator: IM

When it comes to translation, IM normally works better than voice and Skype Translator is no exception. That’s not to say its IM translation is great, though – in fact, there are quite serious problems with it.

We should probably start with the fact it likes to upgrade slightly risqué idioms to extremely sweary ones. We can’t actually reprint how it translated my co-tester’s opener – it was that bad – but at least gave us a bit of a laugh.

In fact, it doesn’t like idioms or colloquialisms at all, and will tend to give a literal and consequently nonsensical translation. This has been a long-term problem for consumer text translation software, but you would have hoped that Microsoft would have taken the time to iron this out. Idioms tend to have a set translation, so this should have been one of the easiest things to program into the software.

Similarly, Skype Translator is unable to keep up with a conversation where the user is either typing in disjointed sentences or refers to something in the preceding sentence or message with “it” – as is normal in IM conversations. This causes particular problems with gendered languages, like French and Spanish, as feminine nouns (la chaise, la comunidad) will be referred to with a masculine pronoun in the second sentence if you use “it”.

While this might not seem like a big deal to us, you would have hoped that such supposedly advanced software would be able to analyse the preceding message and determine if “it” is masculine or feminine to prevent simple grammatical mistakes such as this. We would assume the same problem would also affect animate/inanimate languages like Basque, although we haven’t been able to test this hypothesis.

In short, the while the IM function is quicker, in that you don’t have to flick between two pieces of software, it’s no more accurate than using Google Translate or similar services, which is disappointing for a flagship translator.

Skype Translator: Voice

Simultaneous voice translation is Skype’s main selling point, but it’s still very rickety.

One of the most frustrating elements is the stiltedness of the conversation. One person speaks, both wait for the translation to come through, then the other person replies. While the delay may only be around ten seconds at a time, it makes for an unnatural experience and over the course of a whole conversation means a lot of time is spent, effectively, in silence.

At the time of testing, the only spoken languages available were English and Spanish, although Mandarin and Italian have since been added. This wasn’t ideal as, while my initial co-tester and I both speak Spanish, neither is a native speaker, which isn’t ideal when trying to test the accuracy of translation software.

Once again, the fact that you have to choose your partner’s language rather than your own also led to confusion, as my co-tester didn’t realise he needed to change my spoken language. Consequently, our first attempt at voice translation went horribly, horribly wrong.

 Skype Translator preview

Once we changed the settings so I it knew I was speaking Spanish, things actually got worse. Despite being in the same building, we were unable to establish a connection between the two accounts. We tried multiple times, but either one side wouldn’t recognise there was a call incoming, or if it did and we hit answer, the other side wouldn’t recognise that the call had been answered.

However, I was able to establish successful calls with two other co-testers, with varying results.

My attempt to talk with someone who has a fairly strong East London accent started off ok, and we were able to exchange pleasantries initially. However, as soon as we tried to get down to the main topic of conversation – vacuum cleaners – we hit a roadblock, as the software was unable to understand what was being said in English.

My second call with someone speaking English with a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent went much better from the English side, but faltered on the Spanish. This is, once again, likely a regional accent problem. I’ve been informed anecdotally that Skype Translator works much better if the Spanish-speaker is from Latin America, rather than Spain, and prefers West Coast American accents even to British RP.

It’s worth noting that my testing conditions weren’t ideal. I was in an environment that had a bit of an echo and intermittent background noise. However, my co-testers were all in quiet areas using headsets and there were still significant errors.

Skype Translator: verdict

Even accepting the caveat that this is a preview program, a lot of work still needs to be done before the voice translation is fit for purpose and, I fear, the stilted nature of conversations will probably never be resolved.

The fact that it’s currently limited to Windows 8.1, and doesn’t include support languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet, such as Russian, Greek and Bengali, also means the amount of input the software will receive and “learn” from is limited from the get go.

We also feel Microsoft cheated a bit showing off German voice translation at the live demo of Skype Translator only to find it’s not an option in the actual preview.
In short, Skype Translator as it stands falls a long short of being useful in its proposed business context. It’s definitely not something that’s going to put professional interpreters out of work anytime soon.

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