Skype Translator Learns Italian and Chinese

After connecting English and Spanish speakers, Microsoft's near-real-time translation app is growing its global vocabulary.

Skype Translator

Skype Translator has doubled its spoken language support to four languages, Microsoft announced today.

"In December, we announced the first phase of the Skype Translator preview program and today we're excited to announce Skype Translator's next milestone, the addition of two spoken languages: Italian and Chinese (Mandarin), to the current offering of Spanish and English," said Yasmin Khan, a Microsoft senior product marketing manager, in an April 8 Skype Big Blog post. Available as an app for Windows 8.1, Skype Translator translates spoken and text Skype conversations in near real time, enabling users to carry on more natural video calls.

First demoed in May 2014 by Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Skype, the app impressed observers with its ability to accurately and responsively translate a Skype video call between Pall and his German colleague Diana Heinrichs. Backed by Microsoft's machine learning research, the app provided them with spoken and on-screen text translations from English to German, and vice versa, with few hiccups.

Interestingly, Skype Translator still doesn't support German, but the addition of Mandarin represents a breakthrough, of sorts, for the technology.

"As you can imagine, Mandarin is a very challenging language to learn, even for Skype Translator," said Khan. "With approximately 10,000 characters and multiple tones, this is one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to master, along with Arabic, Japanese, and Korean."

It is also an example of the practical technologies to come out of Microsoft Research's operations in China. "Microsoft researchers and scientists at our labs in Beijing, China, working very closely with their US-based colleagues, have played an instrumental role in building the recognition, language and translation models for Mandarin," Khan added.

In addition to the new languages, the app has been enhanced with some user-centric upgrades. "The focus of our updates in this preview release is to streamline interactions between participants, so you can have a more natural conversation using Skype Translator," Khan said.

Users can now elect to listen to Skype instant messages in the language of their choice. A new continuous recognition feature provides text translations as a spoken conversation is taking place.

Also new is automatic volume control. "Your partner can speak while the translation is still happening," Khan said. "You will hear the translation at full volume, and your partner at a lower volume, so that you can follow the translation, which will help make conversations more fluid." Users who prefer to only read the transcript can now mute the app's translated audio.

Microsoft isn't the only tech giant seeking to eliminate language barriers.

In a major update of its Translate app for Android and iOS, Google integrated its Word Lens real-time text translation technology, which overlays translated text on images captured by a phone's camera, in January. Google Translate also now features a more responsive conversation mode that allows users to carry on more fluid conversations.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...