Lost in translation? Skype hopes not

Skype Translator

A German- speaking Skype caller uses Skype Translator to communicate with an English- speaking Skype caller.

It’s one of those “living in the future” technologies. Microsoft is unveiling a live translation feature coming to its Skype service later this year. You have a conversation with someone in another language, and a moment later, the software translates it.

Gurdeep Singh Pall, a Microsoft Vice President, demonstrated the technology on stage at Re/code’s Code Conference this week, and the company says an early version of Skype Translator will debut later this year.

“It has some syntax problems, but yeah, wow, it’s good,” says Alice Leri, who teaches at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, and speaks German. 

Her colleague, Ken Erickson, a business anthropologist at the school, was a bit more skeptical. This kind of electronic translation, good as it is, “lulls you into a sense of comfort where you should be not so comfortable,” he says. 

A lot can get lost in translation in international business. Computer translations can send the opposite meaning than you intended in languages like Chinese. Skype Translator might be useful for simple things like scheduling a meeting, but, “if you want to negotiate a contract, you better not rely on something like this,” Erickson says.  

Microsoft admits the technology is still not ready for primetime. It will likely first be used by regular Skype users, who don’t have the same demands for accuracy as business customers. 

“It makes more sense to introduce the technology is through consumer applications,” says Raúl Castañón, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group. 

And, the tech giants are all becoming more interested in translation services. Google recently bought Word Lens, an app that uses a smartphone's camera to translate text on signs and menus. 

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