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Google Translate: redefining translation

December 16, 2011

We’ve referenced Google Translate or GT (here), and Theophrastus has used it for a post (here).  The wonderful translation book (Is That a Fish in Your Ear?) by David Bellos has much to say about GT including that it’s “an automatic-translation tool that is unlike all others.”  And GT is changing faster than the wikipediaists can keep up:  they’ve only announced the “25th stage (Launched July 2011).  Now you can rate the translations.”

For users, GT is actually redefining translation by offering what might be more precisely called transposition.  In other words, speech now gets converted into text, not only the written form of the first language for also the script of the second language.  Here, for example, are some screenshots (HT iTunes store) from the iPhone showing the transliterated output from English speech into various languages.  This speech-to-text function has been around for some time now (relatively speaking) and the text-to-speech function even longer.

This week, GT has added an additional feature that makes what we mean by tranlsation even richer.  Handwriting recognition is a function of the GT app for android devices.  It’s available in seven languages so far:  Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.  (ht Cameron Summerson.)  For those of us who have Apple devices, it appears we’re going to have to wait, as the most recent version of the GT app for iPhones and iPads still looks like this:

But here’s how that looks for anyone going to the Android market:

For Chinese and Japanese handwriters, it’s not entirely clear yet whether the function is only for Mandarin and only for Kanji.  And yet, for users this is an incredibly helpful feature when translating.  Who knew translation meant handwriting a Chinese character and hearing a transposition into Mandarin phrase and a transposed-translation into an English phrase (and getting the English also written and the Chinese re-written)?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2011 12:24 am

    Kurk: handwriting input for Japanese and Chinese is already built into the iPhone, and has been for a while (not to mention numerous PDA’s going back for at least 8 years.)

    I don’t use an Android phone, so I’m not sure what the chronology is, but this may be a case of Android catching up to the iPhone.

  2. December 19, 2011 10:36 am

    Theophrastus,
    My post was not on the fact — as you point out — that handwriting input for the iPhone (and iPad and PDAs of all sorts) has been around for a while. The old handwriting software just keeps getting better and better, in fact.

    What I wanted to note in the post is how Google has been updating its Google Translate application for devices so as to integrate the old technology into what is becoming “translation.” The GT app writers for Androids have beat the GT app writers for Apple devices to the punch.


    I only have Apple devices (an iPad2 and iPhone) so I can’t yet tell if the GT handwriting functions for Chinese allows for “translation” into anything but Mandarin or if the GT app allows for hiragana and katakana in Japanese.

    Would anyone with an Android device out there want to comment on that?

  3. December 19, 2011 1:47 pm

    I’m quite sure that any input that allows Japanese kanji (yes, I know that is an oxymoron) will also allow kana. There is little technical difficulty in machine recognition of kana handwriting; however, as you know, kana can be highly ambiguous.

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