you'd think that if a big system could do this, by laptop could reliably do speech-to-text.

i'm not holding my breath here....

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Breaking Down Language Barriers
Andy Stone, 10.19.05, 3:00 PM ET

Much sooner than you might expect, it will be possible for an American in New York to pick up a cell phone and have a conversation with a Chinese co-worker in Shanghai--with both people speaking their native languages. Cell phones, using sophisticated translation technology, will translate the conversation in real time.

One company leading the way to such a smaller world is TransClick, a systems integrator that puts together all of the technological components necessary to make real-time translation a reality. TransClick Chief Executive Robert Levin does not have modest plans; he describes his technology as breaking down barriers for international commerce. "The last barrier for global e-commerce is the language barrier," Levin says.

But the service does not currently handle voice-to-voice translation.

During the first quarter of 2006, TransClick will introduce real-time short-message service (SMS) for Verizon Wireless (nyse: VZ - news - people ) corporate customers, who will be able to send SMS messages from their cell phones to French-, Spanish-, German-, Italian- and Portuguese-speaking colleagues in Europe.

TransClick plans to expand the service to Sprint Nextel (nyse: S - news - people ) and Cingular in 2006, with translated connections to Asia and Latin America.

By November, TransClick will introduce a Web-based instant messaging program for $5 per month. Levin expects interoperability with popular SMS programs, like Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO - news - people ) Messenger, by next year, as well as the introduction of translation services for mobile e-mail.

No single mad scientist buried deep in a university basement is going to make quality machine translation a reality. Instead, Levin relies on best-of-breed products from several disciplines. Bilingual dictionaries form the basis of all translations, giving computers the raw material needed to correlate words and phrases in one language with those in another.

The second level involves what's called a translation engine. These are the grammar- and algorithm-based programs that decipher the meaning of a particular sentence, breaking it down into its individual parts and reconstructing it in the target language.

Today's engines concentrate on specific language pairs, such as Arabic-English, so Levin picks the best engine for any given language pair. He relies on the Bleu scoring system, originally developed by IBM (nyse: IBM - news - people ) in the 1990s, to gauge translation accuracy.

In fact, IBM is also working on its own real-time translation system, called Multilingual Automatic Speech to Speech Translator, or MASTOR, which handles Mandarin and English. The technology is in its early stages.

Companies, like Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) and General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ), use specific engines to translate their technical manuals into many languages. These programs focus on limited vocabularies, helping to avoid contextual confusion and keeping down errors. The best engines, developed over many years and with large reserves of source data, can translate with 80% accuracy: Human translators do the final editing.

"Ninety-nine percent of revenue from engine vendors is document translation. Less than 1% is from gee-whiz applications," says Levin. "So we're on the cutting edge."

Verizon's SMS service will cost users $3 per month plus 20 cents per message sent. The technology is simple to implement: Users download a small application from Verizon's Web site, which connects users to TransClick's servers.

The international market for machine translation technology could be huge: 65% of the world's 800 million Internet users don't speak English comfortably--or at all--a promising statistic for companies that can get their Web sites translated automatically into as many of the world's 4,900 languages as possible.

Speech-to-text and speech-to-speech translations present additional technical hurdles, because voice recognition must be added. Current voice recognition software has trouble getting even clearly spoken words correct. Just consider voice-activated customer calling menus. Nonstandard accents and background noise bring their accuracy down even further.

But Levin says the first systems, developed for "dirty travel survival," like using the cell phone to give cab drivers directions in Chinese, will be ready within two years. Levin is currently working on voice-to-text translations that will allow tourists to speak a question into their cell phones. Translated Chinese text will then appear on the cell screen for another person to read. True speech-to-speech translation, albeit with limited vocabulary, will be ready by the end of the decade.

But none of this means that high school students will be able to blow off their foreign language homework anytime soon. Robust translation for everyday conversation, taking into account different dialects and the incredible breadth of spoken language and all of the ambiguities that currently confound computers, is far off. And as translation technology becomes more commonly used, the need for qualified human editors to tidy up translations for publishing will grow. For example, an English-Chinese translator specializing in medical texts gets paid $600 or more for the final editing of a short journal article.

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