Phone call translator app to be offered by NTT Docomo


Richard Taylor reports on the phone app claiming to translate calls in real time

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An app offering real-time translations is to allow people in Japan to speak to foreigners over the phone with both parties using their native tongue.

NTT Docomo - the country's biggest mobile network - will initially convert Japanese to English, Mandarin and Korean, with other languages to follow.

It is the latest in a series of telephone conversation translators to launch in recent months.

Lexifone and Vocre have developed other products.

Alcatel-Lucent and Microsoft are among those working on other solutions.

The products have the potential to let companies avoid having to use specially trained multilingual staff, helping them cut costs. They could also aid tourism.

However, the software involved cannot offer perfect translations, limiting its use in some situations.

Cloud technology

NTT Docomo unveiled its Hanashite Hon'yaku app for Android devices at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (Ceatec) show in Japan earlier this month, and plans to launch it on 1 November.

It provides users with voice translations of the other speaker's conversation after a slight pause, as well as providing a text readout.

"French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai will be added for this application in late November, raising the number of non-Japanese languages to 10," the firm said in a statement.

"Fast and accurate translations are possible with any smartphone, regardless of device specifications, because Hanashite Hon'yaku utilises Docomo's cloud [remote computer servers] for processing."

The caller must subscribe to one of Docomo's packages to be able to use it.

Graphic for NTT Docomo app NTT Docomo's app offers both voice and text translations of phone conversations
Landline translations

NTT Docomo will soon face competition from France's Alcatel-Lucent which is developing a rival product, WeTalk. It can handle Japanese and about a dozen other languages including English, French and Arabic.

Start Quote

We want to allow conferences with 10 people and four different languages, and the system would provide translations in every language needed”

End Quote Gilles Gerlinge Alactel-Lucent

The service is designed to work over any landline telephone, meaning the company has had to find a way to do speech recognition using audio data sampled at a rate of 8kHz or 16kHz.

Other products - which rely on data connections - have used higher 44kHz samples which are easier to process.

Alcatel-Lucent uses a patented technology to capture the user's voice and enhance it before applying speech recognition software. The data is then run through translation software before being run through a speech synthesiser.

The firm said all this could be done in less than a second. However, it has opted to wait before the speaker has stopped talking before starting the translation after experiments carried out with workers at insurance company Axa suggested users preferred the experience.

"We are still working on improving the system," Gilles Gerlinger, the product's co-founder, told the BBC.

"You can do conversations with one person, but we want to allow conferences with 10 people and four different languages, and the system would provide translations in every language needed.

"We also have a project called MyVoice which can have a synthetic voice that sounds like your real one."

Mr Gerlinger suggested that his firm would make money from the product by renting servers with the necessary software to big businesses, and charging smaller ones a fee for the amount of time they used the service.

Converted video chats

Microsoft's Research Labs has also been working on a technology it calls the Translating Telephone. The firm has acknowledged that one of the biggest problems was making the software adapt itself to cope with different ways people pronounce words.

Lexifone graphic Start-up Lexifone charges users for its service depending on the length of their telephone call

"The technologies are still not perfect," said researcher Kit Thambiratnam in 2010.

"But we feel they are good enough for two people to communicate in their native languages, as long as they are willing to speak carefully and maybe occasionally repeat themselves."

Google already has a Translate app that can translate 17 spoken languages, allowing face-to-face conversations with a foreigner, but it is not yet designed to work with telephone calls.

Start-up Israeli company Lexifone is hoping to get a head-start with its own phone conversation product.

It launched earlier this year offering translations between English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and Mandarin.

Its chief executive, an ex-IBM computer engineer, has ambitions to disrupt the human translation industry which he said was worth $14bn (£8.7bn) a year.

"Our original plan was for annual growth of 200%," Ike Sagie told Reuters last month.

Vocre screenshot The Vocre app won the Audience Choice Award at the Techcrunch Disrupt festival

"The way we see market acceptance and the way we see the market welcoming the technology I think we have the potential for growing faster than that."

The firm is working with BT and Telefonica to offer its service to the phone networks' customers.

Meanwhile California-based MyLanguage, is pursuing another strategy by providing voice and text translations during video chats via its Vocre app for iPhones.

The facility - which is currently being beta tested - means that customers will need an internet connection to use it.

Lost in translation

Despite the ambitions of those involved in the nascent sector, one analyst questioned their chances of success

"These kind of real-time technologies have been 'two to three years away' for the past decade," said Benedict Evans, technology expert at Enders Analysis.

"Both speech recognition and machine translation are sort of there if you're not too fussy.

"But they are generally not as good as speaking the language itself, and my suspicion is that they would not reliable enough to use them for business purposes when you need to be really sure about what the other person said."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    It is still are raining not here also then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Cool stuff if and when they hammer out the bugs

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Speech recognition and translation wont be perfect straight away, so? Does that mean this shouldnt be done at all?
    The language barrier is a barrier and tech like this should be welcomed - how many Brits are bi or trilingual? Even then, there are thousands of languages (only a few hundred of which are widely used)

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    The experience in higher education, of students using translation tool in academic writing shows that translation that is not mediated by someone who understands the nuances of both languages can lead to confusion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    The world has become a much smaller place than it was only a few short years ago .However , it is still the language barrier that continues to devide us . I can get by with bad Spanish and French , but it is impossible for me to be fluent in any/every language apart from my own native tongue - as it is for most of us . I hail this comunication invention as a wondeful tool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    This technology won't put interpreters out of a job. Good interpreters (heck, even 'bad' one) will always be better than a computer.

    There was a time when people said secretaries would be out of a job because of software that could 'type' what you said... yet it hasn't happened. You have to train the software, which can type 30-40 wpm (I can type 75 wpm on a bad day).

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Every time there is a story about advancement there are tons of posts about how its pointless or wont work - seriously, if you think nothing is worth trying or doing or you have no forethought, then just kill yourself - the human race has no use for you

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    If it were easy to do it wouldn't be in development. The difficulty in making it work is exactly why it's worth trying to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    um the article says that this technology will be in use in a couple of months so you can't just write that they can't do it they are doing it. i for one don't understand how i can push buttons on a keypad and they appear on screen let alone them then instantly being available for you all to read anywhere but it happens, so why not this? more complex yes but impossible - obviously not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    God, how I love the Japanese.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    "It is quite depressing how many nay-sayers are gleefully predicting on here that "it will never work".

    Translation is a hard problem because context makes up most of language's meaning. Do you have any idea how to calculate a context? No? Neither does anyone else

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Young people do not use the language they are taught, they use "txt speak" and abbreviation conventions that we cannot comprehend.
    They will find ways to utilise this type of technology that will boggle our minds.
    I eagerly await the split screen you tube videos of cats and dogs talking to each other.
    They will solve the complexity issue by ignoring it and creating their own "dictionaries"

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    If Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers had to use a translation device to get their inventions into written designs and then built by another country in another language goodness knows where we would be today, probably a flightless lightless glass bulb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    It is quite depressing how many nay-sayers are gleefully predicting on here that "it will never work". Sure, it is difficult to do.. and yes, it will probably never be as good a human. But....if Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers had listened to the pessimists and doubters, then electric lighting or aeroplanes would never have been invented!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I'm a conference interpreter, and I have seen trials of similar systems. They work ONLY with very simplified use of language and - as yet - cannot cope with either accents or idiom. Neither can they distinguish between what people say and what actually mean. I am not unbiased, but I will be truly amazed if they can be used without fairly serious problems of comprehension. Not yet, anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    If I said you had lovely thighs would you hold it against me
    Its a wind up or to put the wind up someone
    I refuse to put the refuse out
    I'm going for a walk up the Downs
    keep in step or you will trip over your instep
    I'd like Dover Sole please
    You'll need a rubber to erase that mistake
    I'm tired of having to change my own tyres

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    For simplicity, everybody should learn to speak English.
    As George Dubya is credited with saying, "If the English Language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the rest of us".

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    papa est dans le jardin, maman est dans la cuisinecuisinière

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Having seen voice recognition in action when trying to enquire about a cinema film I'm not convinced.

    'You said London'
    'No, I said Luton'.........'
    'Please hold for an operator'
    20 minutes later you are still holding but...
    'Your call is important to us'
    'No it isn't. Otherwise you would employ more staff !'
    'Your call is in a queue.'
    'Yeah, right at the back of it'


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