Now You Can Speak Mandarin, Thanks to Google

May 2010

If you’re in, say, Beijing, and you walk into a shop and want to ask for something specific, you can take our your cell phone, speak the phrase, “Do you have strawberry cheesecake,” wait a few seconds, and then press a button. Your phone then speaks the question in Mandarin to the clerk.

Then you hold up your phone, and the clerk speaks an answer in Mandarin. You wait a few seconds, then tap a button on your phone. It then says, in a computer-sounding voice: “No, we don’t have strawberry cheesecake, but you can find some in the shop across the street.”

If you have an Android phone (those that run Google’s free cell phone software), as of March you could download software from Google that lets you speak Mandarin in this way.

Google is doing amazing things. The next step, as you can well imagine, isn’t that far off: a Star Trek-like universal translator that lets you talk to almost anyone.

Their free translation service, Google Translate, has become what may be the best in the world, for reasons I’ll explain.

Consider this example from Andy, one of my readers, who wrote about this on his website. He decided to give Google Translate a stress test. For a comparison, he first he went to the Babel Fish translation service from Yahoo (babelfish.yahoo.com) and entered in text from an Associated Press news story. In part, it read:

“A California Highway Patrol officer helped slow a runaway Toyota Prius from 94 mph to a safe stop on Monday after the car’s accelerator became stuck on a San Diego County freeway, the CHP said.”

Then he did a devilish thing: he asked it to translate that into Dutch, then had it translate the Dutch text to French, then the French to modern Greek, and then the Greek back to English.

Here’s the result:

“A civil servant of patrol of street of his California that is strengthened a refugee Toyota Prius 94 MPU in one certain end Second later car’? ; slow down? s versneller it has stuck in a motorway of province [proanaferthe]‘? [ntos] San Diego, CHP.”

And how did Google Translate do? Judge for yourself:

“An officer of the California Highway Patrol helped slow runaway Toyota Prius by 94 miles per hour in a safe halt on Monday after the throttle of the car was stuck in a street in San Diego County, the CHP.”

As Andy wrote, this is nothing short of astonishing.

Google has now developed a translator that rivals the commercial offerings of companies such as IBM and Microsoft, and its technology gives it an advantage over machine translation efforts by university researchers.

How does it do it? According to an article in the New York Times, machine translation took a leap forward in the 1990s when a new approach was discovered. Rather than feed rules and vocabulary into computers, researchers took a statistical approach that entailed feeding a computer millions of pages of text translated by humans and letting the computer learn to make guess about how to translate new texts.

Because Google’s massive network of computers may be the world’s largest computer, they have the processing power to crunch huge amounts of text. Whereas rival services use up to a billion words of text to create a model of a language, Google uses a few hundred billion words.

Google Translate can translate among 52 languages, more than any similar service. The phone software has a similar capability to translate text, but the voice function described above currently only recognizes spoken English, Mandarin, and Japanese, with German and other languages in development.

The person who heads Google’s translation group, Franz Och, has a doctorate in computer science and a vision for what’s possible. He was quoted in the LA Times saying that speech-to-speech translation — a live conversation between two people speaking different languages — isn’t far off. “A few years down the road it will be a reality that people find useful,” he said.

On your desktop computer you can use Google Translate in several ways: 1) copy and paste an Internet address of a web page in a foreign language, 2) paste text into the dialog box on the Google Translate page, or 3) click on the Upload link, and upload a document from your computer that you’d like to have translated.

And it’s all free. As Andy said, this is nothing short of astonishing.

© 2010 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen