After latest additions last week, to its Translate app, phone users can carry out a bilingual conversation with on-the fly translation
Bangalore, September 20 2017: Users who have been trying out Google's translation tool on its website for some years, might have noticed a sharp improvement in recent months. The classic technique where translation was being done phrase by phrase -- with some weird syntax resulting -- has given way to more mature systems driven by neural networks -- computers that mimic the neurons of the human brain.
Neural machines translate full sentences at a time and the computer system uses the broader context to help it figure out the most relevant translation. It then rearranges and adjusts the translation so that it is conversational, like a human speaking with proper grammar. The use of neural machines, which Google described in a paper last year, has drastically improved translation accuracy and the technology is being applied progressively to all the 103 language that the Google Translate app supports.
Last week, the impact was felt on the 9 Indian languages that the app embraces: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Malayalam and Kannada. Google researchers in India harnessed the similarity between groups of Indian languages -- Marathi and Hindi or Malayalam and Tamil for example. The neural machine "learns" multiple Indian languages simultaneously, and when it trains on them together, the translations for all are better, than if the machine was trained on each individually. Strength lies in numbers!
Perhaps the most useful aspect of the Google Translate updates is Conversation Mode. Users can have a bilingual conversation with someone, by talking to the Google Translate app. To activate this, the user needs to tap the microphone to start speaking in a selected language, then tap the mike again: Google Translate will automatically recognize which of the two languages are being spoken, letting you have a smooth conversation.
Recognizing that many phone owners may not have always-on Internet, Google has also introduced an offline mode in some of the Indian languages -- Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu -- where they can obtain a translation of a word or phrase even when there is no Internet connection. For this one has to download the specific language pack. To translate between two languages, one has to download both packs.
A feature previously available in Google Translate was the ability to use the phone-camera mode to click a photo of English text and get a translation. Now this feature too, has been fuelled by machine learning. Using something called Word Lens, one can obtain instant translation in real time -- very useful if you want to read a street sign or a restaurant menu that you can't understand.
India is an important test bed for Google's translation technology: it ranks among the world's top four countries using the Translate tool and the number of users has doubled in six months since the Indian languages were introduced. Interestingly, more Indians like to speak their translation requirement rather than entering text. In fact voice based search in Hindi quadruples year on year.
The Google Translate app is available both for Android and iOS.