If you are reading this, chances are, you understand English. Do we realize how much of our online interactions are in English, and how much we are missing of who and what lives on the internet that is not speaking/writing English?
I had a recent interaction on Twitter with Juan Domingo Farnos (@Juandoming) and a few other people, in which Juan responded to all of our English tweets in Spanish, and Twitter on my phone had a quick translate link (this uses Bing). This conversation was a little slower than my routine Twitter interactions, obviously, because you can’t just scroll through your stream smoothly; but I was actually able to have a conversation over something like 3 days. There were instances where the translations made no sense and I would have to ask for clarification or try Google translate (yes, it provides different translations from Bing) or even try to read the thing myself, hoping that my moderate knowledge of French might help me understand the Spanish or detect typos.
Juan also shared an instance of bilingual debate he had with Stephen Downes a while ago and it all got me thinking about the possibilities of multilingual dialogue. The truth is, when we have conversation in just one language (predominantly English in academia), we are constantly privileging some people over others. This is particularly noticeable in the Doha Debates of BBC (e.g. this one), where there is a rigid format for the debate, and you notice quite clearly how the non-native/non-fluent speakers of English often speak slower than the native/fluent speakers, and may need more time to process or express themselves clearly.
On the one hand, any form of translation opens the door to misinterpretation and misunderstanding; on the other hand, any sane person would A. Know that this is possible, and hopefully give the other the benefit of the doubt, and B. Know that misunderstanding is already a large part of any conversation on social media and in person, especially when talking across cultures and when some participants are non-native speakers of the language used.
What am I saying? I’m saying that it may be more comfortable for those of us native or fluent in English to have conversations in English, but that does not mean that the other person (less fluent in English) is as comfortable expressing themselves or receiving the conversation in English. And so it seems only fair to occasionally go to the extra effort of trying the other way.
I could go on forever about this, but this post is actually about software that supports multilingual dialogue if it is something you are interested in trying for professional development or teaching/learning. I say “dialogue” but I realize that a truly deep and meaningful dialogue requires a lot more than the help of some translation software; so the software just helps with multilingual interpretation and short conversation, at best. It’s up to us to make the effort to take it beyond that. I wasn’t crazy about MacWorld’s review of best apps for translation because it had things like offline dictionaries, which are not conducive to translating conversation in a totally foreign language. There are other lists such as this one. I wanted to hear about it from other academics. So I posed a question on Twitter and here are some of the responses I received from multilingual friends:
Twitter has in-built Bing translation software that auto-detects language and with one click offers to translate into English (I guess it also recognizes that the user is using English). You can’t beat the convenience of that for having an actual conversation in multiple languages.
Google translate (also available as app)
I put Google translate AFTER Twitter because with Google translate, you would have to copy/paste text to translate it - whereas Twitter allows you to translate in a more seamless way while the conversation is happening. Still, Google translate is pretty good in the sense that if you’re on the Android browser, it automatically detects if a webpage is not in a language you understand, and offers to translate to a language you do understand.
iTranslate & iTranslate Voice (suggested by @EricStoller)
Eric Stoller suggested iTranslate and he says “it works wonders in the field”. This is an iPhone (but also Android) app which also has a voice app. It says at the bottom “translated by Microsoft” and has a link “wrong?” in case you would like to give feedback. That’s a key thing - in many of my Twitter conversations, most people feel that translation apps are actually most useful when you are familiar with both languages, not when you are totally clueless. The really amazing thing I found with iTranslate is that when I first downloaded it, it automatically gave me the option to translate German to English. Does it know I am using DuoLingo to learn German? Does it know I am visiting a lot of German websites recently? Is it a coincidence (doubtful)?
I tried the Arabic/English translation and while it says it offers Saudi dialect, it’s really actually translating Modern Standard Arabic (which is the Arabic we write but no one speaks). But what I liked about the Arabic is that it lets you know in Latin alphabet how to pronounce the word and has a button you can click that would read it out loud for you. It also has a built-in button for you to record your own voice and it will translate whatever you say to the other language. I tried it with a few easy sentences and it did really well, though the added complexity of speech detection means it did not always hear the full sentences (it seems to have a limited time of listening). Still, it does crazy things like this: it translates the Spanish “Seguro que sera interesante” as “It will be interesting insurance” (same as Bing) whereas Google translate gets it closer to what I think is correct “Sure to be interesting”. I used their “wrong?” button to let them know they got it wrong, but I’m wondering if users who do this more frequently should get some sort of reward in return? What about if someone intentionally feeds it incorrect info? Because I don’t speak Spanish and I just presumed to know that the translation was wrong.
The app is free but has a premium version with no ads and potential to translate longer texts - now why would I do that when Google translate does that for free? If you’re willing to pay for apps, here is a list of others that don’t start out free. I wasn’t willing to pay so I did not test them.
- For Chinese, Clay Shirky suggested Baidu/Google followed by manual editing (which assumes you know both languages at least a bit)
- For Spanish, Caroline Kuhn suggested Mundo.es/Google followed by manual editing
- For Arabic, check out Meedan which uses a combination of machine-translation and distributed human translation (which in my opinion is brilliant). Meedan offers Bridge which is a social media translation platform (available as an app). Check out an instance where Meedan/Bridge teamed up with Global Voices Lingua to translate a hashtag of a conference into Arabic and Spanish (shared by An Xiao Mina).
If You’re Curious About the Science Behind It All...
Pauline Data Ward shared this video by Philipp Koehn about his machine translation work:
Has Anyone Tried Skype Translator?
I was really curious about Skype Translator when it first came out but have not heard great feedback about it. If you have tried it I would be really curious how it was for you. They have a disclaimer about machine learning, and so it is expected to get better with time.
[Side note: for laughs, I put this entire article into Google translate and Bing translator, and both translated the “who” in the first paragraph as منظمة الصحة العالمية the Arabic translation of “World Health Organization” - which is weird because I had not capitalized the WHO, but it seems to have seen the “missing” word and contextualized the sentence differently]
Are you interested in multilingual dialogue? Do you have an app to recommend that you’ve used? Tell us in the comments!
flickr photo by quinn.anya https://flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/5889722055 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license