Skype's real-time translation tool, first demoed back in 2014, seemed like the future. Speak in your native tongue into its VoIP client, and it would immediately spurt out a translation in the preferred language of the recipient. After having been in a beta phase for some time, it's now rolling out globally. And, under the right circumstances, it works surprisingly well.
Landing as part of today's desktop Skype client update (the feature itself will be turned on to batches of users over the coming days) the tool is activated with a simple on/off button. Once powered up, the Skype Translator can interpret and speak (in both male and female voices) in six languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin and German. It can also do the same in a text-only format in 50 languages.
Once having selected your languages of choice from a drop down menu, it's as easy to use as simply speaking and waiting to hear back a response. Smartly, the Skype Translator shows a text-based version of what it is about to send to a recipient, meaning you'll be aware of when it's muddled your words. For the most part though, speaking in considered, short sentences sees the translator perform admirably, if not quite to the expectations set by science fiction.
As you'd expect however, it's by no means perfect. Speak too quickly and the translator stumbles (I can't remember exactly what I was trying to say at the moment the Skype Translator relayed the words "Good girl Paris is waiting for number", but it certainly wasn't that), and its grammatical understanding (such as when to input a natural pause) needs work or else suffer from sounding robotic. It's also not yet "optimised" for phones, meaning that the tool works much, much better when in a one-to-one conversation at a PC, with a headset plugged in. Background noise can really interfere with its readings.
But, as the foundation building blocks for a new Tower of Babel, the Skype Translator shows serious promise. It's already able to handle quite lengthy stretches of unbroken speech, translating as it goes along, and can understand slang terms and regional accents in multiple languages. As someone who speaks only his native tongue, it was refreshing to be able to have a relatively painless conversation with a Spanish speaking person during a demo test.
And, as with any tool where its advancement is reliant upon machine learning, the Skype Translator will only get better with time. As the Skype and Microsoft teams unleash the app to the masses, the data collected will quickly help the accuracy of the translations to improve. Hence the current "Preview" status of the feature, despite the global roll-out – Skype Translator works, but won't be spot on until millions are submitting translation data every day. At present, Skype would do well to let users have a way to log inaccurate translations for themselves, speeding up the improvement process – as it stands, a translation error goes unchecked.
The promise is there though, whether it's allowing small businesses to interact with overseas suppliers or (eventually, potentially) allowing Xbox One gamers of different tongues play and chat together. Skype perfected the long distance call, and it's made a good first step here at nailing the inter-language one, too.