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10 things you need to know about translation technology

Understanding a foreign language is getting easier with the range of translation apps for your smartphone and computer

These are very useful. But you can take a shortcut to translation now with an app.

Fumbling for words in a foreign language? We have the answer.


1 Google is splashing its cash

Google's free online Translate service has been a popular tool, but the company has grander ambitions. In May, it bought Quest Visual, which makes the clever Word Lens app. That involves pointing your smartphone's camera at signs in the real world for instant translations. The technology is to be incorporated into Google Translate.


2 Other apps are available

Word Lens isn't the only visual translation app in town. Waygo is anotherpopular example for iPhone and Android, capable of recognising and translating Chinese and Japanese menus and signs – again by pointing a smartphone camera. The company behind it says it's working on more languages for the future: "We believe everyone should be able to confidently travel anywhere in the world without language barriers," said its CEO, Ryan Rogowski.

3 Translation in your eyes

Visual translation is also moving to wearable devices such as Google Glass. Word Lens launched for Glass last November and involves holding your head still while looking at a sign, then saying: "OK Glass, translate this." It's not the only such app available: UniSpeech for Google Glass also offers similar features.


4 There is more to translation technology than visuals

Microsoft, for example, has shown off an app, Skype Translator, which provides translations as people speak to one another in different languages. It will launch for Windows 8 devices later this year and has been compared to the Universal Translator gadget in Star Trek.


5 eBay also wants in

The online shopping giant is also very interested in "machine translation" – in its case, to automatically translate listing details on its websites and apps. In June it bought a startup called AppTek, which specialises in this area. eBay has also said it's interested in making more tools using translation: for example, instant messaging software for sellers and potential buyers to chat about a product even if they don't speak the same language.



6 Even Twitter wants to translate for you

It has added Bing Translate – a feature powered by Microsoft's technology – to translate tweets from different languages. Users who have the feature on the iPhone Twitter app can tap on tweets to see a translation – for example from Spanish to English.


7 You've got mail … and it might be translated

eBay might be working on translated instant messaging for businesses, but what about the messaging apps that hundreds of millions of people use? WeChat is one of the first to add translation features: the Chinese app is used by more than 400 million people and is keen to expand in the west. If you long-tap on a message, you can get it translated immediately.


8 Sign language is getting translation tech too

It's not just words that can be translated: sign language is a good candidate too. Microsoft has worked with Kinect Sign Language Translator, using the Xbox camera and motion-detection accessory to translate sign language into text and spoken language. Tech startupMotionSavvy is exploring a similar idea using the LeapMotion gesture controller for computers.


9 Your online meeting just got interesting

Real-time translation for businesses is in the offing. HP is working with a startup called SpeechTrans to translate conference calls while they're in progress, claiming to be able to handle conversations of any length in 44 languages. Its competition with Microsoft's Skype Translate should ensure swift progress in this field.


10 Translation tech can be about more than words

Also taking off is visual recognition and search: the ability for a device to recognise what you're pointing its camera at and do something useful. For example, Amazon's Fire Phone, which is to be launched soon, has a feature called Firefly that can, among other things, scan phone numbers to add to your contacts, wine labels to find out which food to eat with them and even artworks to provide extra info.



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