Skype Translator is very exciting for a number of reasons as the promise of real-time audio translation has incredible potential in both consumer and business settings. This technology is literally decades in the making and there are a number of players making significant investments in the technology. NTT Docomo released a “nearly real-time” voice translator in late 2011 and Google (of course) has developed a real-time translation technology with “near-perfect results”. As we all know in the interpreting world, “near-perfect” is exactly the reason why the technology won’t be able to be relied on for quite some time. Here are the top 3 reasons why real-time audio translation services won’t be able to match video remote interpreting in the near term:

  1. ‘Near-perfect’ equals inaccurate – one of the main challenges that current audio-only translation technologies face is their inability to accurately translate slang, casual language, dialect-related discrepancies, and regional speech patterns. Although accuracy levels have certainly improved over the last decade, the current limitations will impede adoption by organizations such as hospitals that need to provide time-critical and precise translation services. These limitations are expected to take many more years to overcome.
  2. The challenges of addressing cultural sensitivities – audio translation can be very effective in casual and consumer scenarios and will likely be an incredible technology for providing assistance during international travel situations and for connecting remote relatives and friends. However, evaluating and addressing cultural sensitivities and visual clues (such as body language and facial expressions) are critical for full comprehension and accurate translation of any given scenario, especially for those that are time sensitive or emergency-related. The risks of misunderstanding are simply too high with an audio-only solution.
  3. Audio-only solutions don’t work for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing – this is an obvious one and only in-person and video remote interpreting solutions provide viable alternatives for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

Microsoft’s Skype Translator service is a promising technology advancement and its application in consumer scenarios is incredibly exciting. It will be interesting to watch this space as competing technology providers race to perfect the translation accuracy of their respective offerings. Precision will remain their challenge for years to come, though, and will be a serious impediment for adoption in the world of interpreting, especially when compared to the currently superior video remote interpreting solutions available today.

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