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Gmail adds own version of 'Star Trek' Universal Translator

In the official Gmail blog, Jeff Chin, product manager of Google Translate, has announced that Automated Message Translation was being added to Gmail. This feature had been kicking around in Google Labs for almost three years, so the team at Google decided it was high time to graduate it to a regular feature.

This could be a huge boon for federal agencies that use Google Apps for Government, as it will allow them to, mostly flawlessly, translate communications from people who speak almost any language, and allow them to respond in kind. It's a little like the Universal Translator from "Star Trek."

So, here is what the average Gmail user will experience once they have the feature fully in place.

Say English is your native language, and you’ve told Google that in your preferences. If you receive an e-mail in another language, say Japanese, Google Translate will show a bar above it that says what language it is, and a “Translate Message” link. Clicking on that will convert the message into your native tongue.

If you are fluent in Japanese and can read it just fine, thank you very much, then just click on “Turn off for: Japanese” and it will leave those e-mails alone. If you did have it translated, then that link will change to “Always Translate: Japanese.” If you click that, then it will translate all messages in Japanese to English automatically, but the bar will still be there, so you know it was translated.

Google currently is able to translate 58 different languages (sorry, no Vulcan or Romulan), and, of course, it keeps working to add more. Seven other language translators are in an “alpha” stage of development. The company draws on its power of having indexed the hundreds of millions of documents that make up the Internet to look for patterns and try to find the best translation it can.

Of course, there generally is no better way to get the original meaning of a message than to read it in the language it was written — even Google calls its pattern-seeking statistical translations “intelligent guesses.”  But since most of us aren’t fluent in every language on the planet, or even a good chunk of them, Automated Message Translation might be the next best thing for getting the gist of an article or message.

And if you want to express yourself accurately in another language, the best way to accomplish that is still to find a human who speaks that language, preferably natively (remember the old book translator’s rule: Only translate into your native language). You don’t want your messages to read like those unintentionally hilarious instruction manuals that sometimes arrive with products made overseas.

I suspect that will be the case for some time to come, but this is a huge step in enabling everyone around the world to communicate with each other, a dream that has been in the works for a very long time.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

Reader Comments

Thu, May 3, 2012

So it will now be the Tower of Google

Thu, May 3, 2012 DT

I hope it does a better job than whoever translates product assembly instructions from Chinese to English.

Thu, May 3, 2012 SoutheastUS

But if you really want to get ahead in business, you need Pheringi. Seriously, though, Google's translator might be OK for "getting the flavor" of an email or emailed article. But to really know what was said, get a reliable human translator fluent in the original language. Even my daughter, who is very fluent in Spanish, will ask her husband (he grew up in Mexico City) to verify her understanding of some words and/or phrases. Even he gets tripped up if the Spanish message is from some other Latin American country. Localized dialects exist throughout Central and South America that can make a seemingly simple translation from Spanish a nightmare, particularly if it is a delicate relationship and you don't want to offend or come off as a silly person. Hats off to Google for the attempt, but give me a native speaker to translate it if true understanding is critical.

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