Google chases Microsoft with beefed-up Translate speech tools

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Microsoft spent the last half of 2014 getting everyone excited about Skype Translator,  a new technology that translates real-time conversations between two people speaking different languages over Skype. The new feature went into an invite-only preview in December.

Not to be left behind, Google recently let slip to The New York Times that it intends to beef up the spoken translation chops of Google Translate for Android and (presumably) iOS.

Pretty soon, Google Translate will automatically detect when someone is speaking and translate and transcribe their words on the fly, according to the Times. If you're a Google Translate user that description probably sounds a little confusing; Translate can already listen to your speech and transcribe it into any number of languages in near real-time.

Google's app cannot, however, automatically detect what language you're speaking. Instead, you have to tell Translate which language you're starting with and which language you want your speech translated into. The best guess, then, is that Google plans to automatically detect a spoken starting language the way it does with written text right now. It's also possible that Translate may automatically detect when you're speaking without having to press the microphone button.

We've asked Google to clarify and will update this post should the company respond.

The impact on you at home: Google's new spoken feature for Translate won't work with all the languages in its database, but a select number of "popular" languages. It sounds like Google plans to bump up the usability of languages that are already well-integrated into the spoken features of the app. While you can speak almost any language into Translate itself, the app can only speak back to you with a translation in a limited number of "popular" languages, such as English, Arabic, Chinese, French, and Spanish.

Beyond Translate

Despite Microsoft's leap forward in translations with Skype, Google has long been at the forefront of creating translation tools. For almost five years, the Chrome browser has had the built-in ability to automatically translate a web page, and Translate itself has been part of Google's services for close to nine years.

The Times also reports that Google is close to capitalizing on its May 2014 acquisition of Quest Visual, the makers of Word Lens. Soon Google Translate will let you snap an image of a street sign and the app will translate it for you. An early build of Translate with Word Lens-like integration leaked in December. But again, this is a feature that is already available in at least limited form, as Google Translate for Android has had a camera input translation feature since 2012.

When it comes to real-time person-to-person interactions, however, it sounds like Microsoft has the advantage for now. Google has yet to announce plans to integrate a Skype Translator-style feature into Hangouts, the search giant's chat app.

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