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 122.

    My ex-wife was Japanese, and worked as a translator, adding Japanese subtitles to UK TV programmes.
    One day an English presenter used the word "umpteenth". She asked me for help, as she didn't know what it meant. It was REALLY hard to explain!

    I think she just put "many" in the end:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Every country I visit I try to learn a few things to say. I've learned a lot of Japanese, I can see this translating very offensive things both ways as in the UK and Japan it depends on how you say the words and in what context! Nothing will ever match the joy of learning a language and travelling abroad!

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    "If you went to Spain or France would you expect to talk to the locals in English? Most probably! The saddest thing I ever heard .."

    Why is this sad? Isn't it marvelously convenient that English is spoken very nearly everywhere?

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Wow vely, vely brilliqnt if it works! I have a Japanese friend and it would be great to use this app.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    112 Mark
    If you went to Spain or France would you expect to talk to the locals in English? Most probably! The saddest thing I ever heard was a 14 year-old girl on holiday saying she didn't need to learn languages because she was English! I learned 5 languages at school 40 years ago and I'm still fluent in 3 of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Gamers will love this, any online game has a limited lexicon often with unique made up "game words" that will be easily translatable. Online play can have a new layer of interaction added between players.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Wow the technology has come a long way since september 2001

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Looking at the complete hash that Google translate makes of even quite simple language, and with the advantage that it's already typed in and does not need the extra error inducing stage of voice recognition I'm not at all convinced that this will work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    This would help my wife and i immensely. Our son lives in Japan and is married to a japanese girl and while she and her father can speak good english the rest of her family cannot so we either have the option of sending letters and having them translated or phoning and talking to our son who translates. It would be great to be able to speak to our sons in-laws directly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    I work as a translator in Japanese to English. I would be astounded if this works in practice because so much of Japanese meaning depends on context, and this impacts on the way the language is structured. For instance, in most Japanese sentences, you omit the subject. Instead of saying "I went to the shops" you just say "went to the shops". Who went to the shops? You just know from context.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    This really isn't addressing the issue ..... foreigners really ought to make the effort to learn English.

    I've spent my entire life learning English .... the very least that they could do is spend a few hours a week.

    This app will just make them even lazier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I would be extremely leary of relying on any automated translators. Even with the best conventional translators the world's most noteable misunderstanding caused nuclear bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am all for advancing technology. Just be cautious and consider having a conventional translator on hand for verification when the meaning is questionable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Many years ago, at the height of the cold war, they experimented with early translation computers for use on the "Hot Line" (actually a teleprinter) between Washington and Moscow. Worrying about idiom, a programmer tried translating the phrase "Out of sight, out of mind" into Russian, then back to English. It came back as "Invisible idiot".

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Years ago whilst doing a purchasing course I had a tutor who worked for Austin Rover. This was at a time when they had their tie up with Honda. He recalled a story of Japanese interpretors trying for days (at a considerable cost) to translate "can't see the wood for the trees".....

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Actual words are one thing, but add the 4 tone variables of mandarin may result in something similar to the Douglas Adams "hitchhikers guide to the galaxy" episode in which a compliment came through as "I hope your grandmother gets eaten by the ravenous Bugblatter beast". I think I would rather stick a babel fish in my ear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Good article although I wouldn't expect the BBC to misspell names - it's Alcatel-Lucent rather than 'Alacatel-Lucent'

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Finally I can be in my own badly dubbed movie!

    This is seriously cool stuff... coupled real time visual and audio augmented reality is going to be a game changer!

    Not sure how long a little startup is going to hold onto their monopoly, expect the big players to sweep in on this one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Considering google translate can't do this with the written word, I doubt we are really that close right now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I think we get spoiled being English - greater numbers of people from many nations can speak English far better than we speak any second languages. And its pretty much the default international language despite there being more Spanish and Mandarin speakers in the world.
    At least in a decade tech like this might be used in the same mindless way we take computers and mobiles for granted

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I think I'd still much rather learn Japanese (its an awesome language).


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