In Google's never-ending quest to collect and utilize the world's information, the company today introduced a new translation feature to its Google Talk chat client. Delivered as a series of chat bots, these tools can quickly translate a phrase or paragraph for you, and they can even be added to group chats to act as real-time translators. The inaugural attempt is certainly a big step in the right direction, but as with any attempt to bridge language barriers with automation, things sometimes get lost in translation.
Google lists out about 30 total language bots in the announcement post on the Google Talk blog. The bots are all logically named according to their translation duty, such as [email protected], signifying an English to Korean translation. Just like Google's other language services, English is the dominant language across the translations, though some non-English bots such as fr2de do exist. Users must add a bot to their Gmail contact list in order to communicate with the bot or use it in a group chat. Once added though, these bots will do their job both in Gmail and other Google Talk implementations like the iGoogle start page, but group chats don't appear to work in third-party clients such as Apple's iChat.
Using a bot for simple translation is as easy as starting a chat with it and typing your phrase, sentence or paragraph. To translate a chat between you and at least one other person, bots for each translation direction will need to be added. For example: if an English speaker wants to use Google Talk to speak with a Chinese speaker, each participant will need to add the relevant translation bot to their contact list, or one participant can add both as contacts, then bring them into the chat. Either way, this end of the process can be a bit clunky, and there is much room for improvement. One way would be to simply check each user's default language and automatically add bots (or at least offer) when two different native language speakers begin to chat.
Once users are set up to chat and the proper bots are brought in, chatting and translating is a mixed bag. In tests across various languages including English, French, and German, the bots at times exhibited surprising translation abilities for things like colloquialisms, but dropped the ball other times with basic "hello, how are you" statements like. By extension, these bots are only as good as Google's translation dictionaries, which some feel can leave much to be desired.
Another bizarre problem in testing was that some combinations of bots would begin to translate each other. When translating English to German, for example, the English bot would occasionally re-translate a statement that was just converted from English to German. This problem was erratic though, hinting that it could simply be a bug which can likely be fixed soon, as the service just debuted today.
All things considered, Google Talk's automated translation abilities are certainly a welcome communication innovation. Users will simply need to remain patient and understanding when mistranslations inevitably happen. Google's language dictionaries will undoubtedly improve over the coming months and years, bringing even more users together through the simple power of chat.