Back in January we mentioned the release of a beta version of Skype Translator, a new service from Microsoft that seemed like a bit of a holy grail for travellers. The basic idea was straightforward — two people who don’t share a language being able to communicate, by text or voice, using Skype.
It’s the speech feature that’s the truly impressive part, with an automated voice translating for both callers in close to real time. A text version (in both languages) shows up as well, as a transcript or to help smooth over minor translation problems.
It sounded great in theory, and with the Skype Translator Preview having recently moved from invitation-only to freely available, it was time to test it out.
Here’s how it went.
The Software Itself
First things first: Skype Translator is Windows-only. In fact, it’s Windows 8-only (unless you’re running a beta version of Windows 10, which is even less likely). Sorry, Apple and Android users, if you want to initiate a call, you’re out of luck for now.
If it’s any consolation, Skype for Mac and earlier versions of Windows work fine to receive calls — which was lucky, since that’s what the people I called were using.
At the time of writing, the software supports only four spoken languages: English, Chinese, Italian and Spanish. You’ve got far more options with written translation — over fifty languages are supported. Microsoft is strongly hinting that both of these numbers are likely to go up in the near future. If you’re interested in how it works, Microsoft has a detailed blog post all about it.
The First Call: English / Chinese
The first call I made was to my brother, who handily happens to speak Mandarin to a reasonable level. We were both in the UK at the time, on reasonable (if not especially fast) Internet connections.
Before placing the call, I needed to select which languages (spoken and written) we were going to use. There were a few other options as well, including whether I wanted “Bob” or “Jane” to provide the translations, as well as an optional profanity filter.
Given I was talking to my brother, I obviously turned the filter off. It’s not just my family that converses mainly in swear words, right?
The call went through fine, and we ended up with a standard Skype video call taking up most of the window. There was also a chat box below, as well as a transcript that appeared almost immediately on the right-hand side as we spoke.
After a pre-recorded message was played in Mandarin advising the call would be recorded, we were free to speak.
Spoken translation was a mixed bag, to say the least. Unsurprisingly, it was most accurate when using short, simple sentences such as “Do you have a room available in your hotel tomorrow?” or “How much is the train to Shanghai?”.
My brother confirmed that the questions were understandable, and his replies were usually — although not always — the same, as long as he spoke slowly and very formally. He benefited greatly, however, from being able to understand my original questions in English, to compare them to the translated version — without that, I’m not sure we would have got to a mutual understanding.
As soon as the conversation turned to less-formal speech, slang or more complex sentence structures, the translation started to fall apart. There were many words and phrases that just didn’t make sense, either in English or Chinese, even after being repeated several times.
While we were happy to keep trying to work around the problems for the sake of this review, it’s unlikely a harried hotel receptionist or travel agent would have the patience in a real-world scenario.
A written conversation performed better. Without accents or variable Internet speeds to contend with, accuracy noticeably improved. While it still wasn’t perfect, it was possible to have a simple, mutually-understandable conversation much of the time.
The Second Call: English / Spanish
A few days later I called a Spanish friend in Madrid, using the relatively slow Internet connection in my hotel. The call didn’t go through the first few times, but finally connected just as I was about to give up.
We role-played for around ten minutes, firstly with him asking (in Spanish) a number of questions about room availability and transportation, and then me doing the same. The quality of the connection definitely came into play here — his faster upload speeds meant the spoken translation was mostly accurate on my end.
Even when the conversation devolved into somewhat unusual room requests such as a bathtub full of ice, 74 bottles of champagne and a selection of illegal drugs, “Bob” had little trouble keeping up.
On his end, however, things didn’t go so well. My slow Internet led to choppiness and breaks in almost every sentence, with the inevitable result of major mistranslations. Without the benefit of a chat window, and him being able to understand both English and Spanish, he would have struggled to understand many of my questions and answers.
Directions were a problem. While basic instructions such as “exit the metro, and the hotel is across the street” were translated fine, station and street names were a mess. As with the call in Chinese, the more complex the sentences became, the less well they were translated.
Both my friend and I found ourselves slowing down and simplifying the way we spoke, in an attempt to improve the translation. Again, we were happy to do so for the sake of testing the software — but the person on the end of the phone at Barcelona’s main bus station would be unlikely to.
On the upside, we could have made some pretty hilarious YouTube videos of the mistranslations. So there’s that.
In some ways, there’s a lot to like about Skype Translator. The fact that software now exists that can let you have a conversation in real time with someone who doesn’t speak your language is remarkable. A few years ago, this was purely the realm of science fiction writers. Now, anyone in the world (with a current version of Windows, at least) can download and use it for free.
At this point in its development, however, it’s more of a fun thing to play around with among friends than a genuinely useful tool for travellers. In an ideal scenario, I’d be able to call a normal telephone from an app on my phone, and have at least a basic conversation with close to 100% accuracy with someone who I didn’t share a language with.
Right now, Skype Translator is a long way from that ideal. Slow Internet — the kind that travellers deal with every day — causes the software to be largely unusable, but even speedy connections have major problems.
Slow, simple, formal speech in quiet rooms is fine for testing, but the real world doesn’t work like that. Noisy environments, accents and dialects, slang and complicated sentences all cause issues, to the extent where you’re rarely certain you’ve got a perfect translation. Ask someone to repeat themselves more than once or twice, and the conversation rapidly becomes frustrating.
The biggest flaw, of course, is the reliance on both parties using Skype. While you might find the occasional hostel owner or tour operator with a Skype address, email and phone calls are still by far the most common way of getting in touch. Until and unless that changes, or the software lets you call a standard phone instead, it’s just not going to be all that useful for travellers.
All of that said, this is preview software, still in the early stages of its development. Will it be better a year or two from now? Absolutely, without a doubt. Will that be enough to turn it from a fun gimmick to an essential part of the travel toolkit? Only time will tell.
Images via Microsoft