By building on existing technologies in voice recognition and automatic translation, Google hopes to have a basic system ready within a couple of years. If it works, it could eventually transform communication among speakers of the world’s 6,000-plus languages.
The company has already created an automatic system for translating text on computers, which is being honed by scanning millions of multi-lingual websites and documents. So far it covers 52 languages, adding Haitian Creole last week.
Google also has a voice recognition system that enables phone users to conduct web searches by speaking commands into their phones rather than typing them in.
Now it is working on combining the two technologies to produce software capable of understanding a caller’s voice and translating it into a synthetic equivalent in a foreign language. Like a professional human interpreter, the phone would analyse “packages” of speech, listening to the speaker until it understands the full meaning of words and phrases, before attempting translation.