12 Aug 2013

BBC tests language translation apps at International House London

BBC Click at IH London

A team from the BBC technology show Click visited International House London last month to film a feature on language translation apps. It aired at the weekend and is available on the BBC iPlayer.

Two of our students were on hand to help the BBC team test the translation apps, Davide from Italy and Arzu from Turkey.

The General English students attempted to communicate in their native languages using the Google Translate app and iTranslate to translate their conversation in to English.

It wasn’t perfect, but after repeating one or two phrases to give the apps a second chance they were able to agree to have lunch at a local Italian restaurant.

When the two typed rather than spoke what they wanted to say the results were much more accurate. It seems voice recognition still has a little way to go whereas many translation apps that work from the written word perform very well.

Google Translate leads the way

If your only experience of a translation app has been the Bing translate button on Facebook then you may be left feeling that language apps have a very long way to go. But if you try the Google Translate tool you'll find it hard not to be impressed and now the majority of translation apps follow Google’s lead.

What has made Google Translate so much better than its rivals at translating written language is that it doesn’t attempt to translate the meaning of a single linguistic expression. Instead, Google Translate assumes that the word or phrase has probably been used somewhere before and searches the World Wide Web in a fraction of a second looking for uses of the expression in texts.

By doing so Google Translate aims to ensure it picks up the nuances of language and avoid the clumsy pitfalls that have hampered previous generations of digital translators.

Currently it scans all papers released by the EU since 1957 in twenty four languages, everything the UN and its agencies have ever done in six official languages, and huge amounts of other material, including all the articles and books in bilingual form that have been put up on the web by individuals, libraries, booksellers, authors and academic departments.

This in itself is a phenomenal achievement and the resulting translations have been getting better year-by-year.

But we’re a very long way from professional translators hanging up their dictionaries and as the IH London students proved, nothing works better than learning a language yourself.


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