Twenty years ago, when traveling, I carried little conversation books with me, so I could find out how much something cost or order coffee in a restaurant. Hand gestures were also very important.
Five years ago, I used Google Translate to print out sentences I would need and pointed to them -- directions to my apartment, say, or a list of my favorite dishes to show waiters.
Today, I have an app on my smartphone that listens to me say a sentence, translates that sentence into more than 65 languages, and then reads the translation out loud.
I’ve tried it out in languages in which I’m fluent, and while it’s not a perfect translation, it's pretty darn good. You might have to rephrase your question a couple of times before the result makes sense. And to get an answer back, the people you're talking to will have to manually type their answer into your phone, since it’s only trained to recognize your voice. Today, at least. Tomorrow -- who knows?
All this requires a combination of three different technologies -- speech recognition, translation, and the reading of text out loud. Each of these is improving at a rapid rate.
In fact, a Microsoft executive recently demonstrated one application during a speech he gave in China where his words were not only automatically translated -- but read aloud in his own voice.
I expect to see that coming to my phone as well. After all, my smartphone already knows what my voice sounds like, given all the text messages I dictate while driving.
Of course, it’s still not as good as a top-notch human translator. But there aren’t that many good translators to go around -- and most of us couldn’t afford them, anyway. Or if we could, it would only be for major events; surely only the richest among us would hire a translator just to talk to taxi drivers or street vendors.
But why should I be the only one to enjoy pretty good instant translation? Why shouldn’t the taxi drivers and street vendors also use their smartphones to communicate with foreign visitors?
The obvious beneficiaries of this technology, to start with at least, are all the travel and tourism-related industries -- restaurants, hotels, taxis, and gift shops. Corporate executives would also have an easier time working in foreign office locations where not all staff speaks their language.
But that’s just the beginning. A bigger and more transformative change will come when US-based employees are able to work more easily with people in other countries.
Today, many sectors are closed to outsourcing because they require a lot of communication between clients and service providers. Some outsourcing companies bridge this gap by having on-shore service and support centers that act as intermediaries. But this slows things down, adds to the expense, and is not a feasible option for the smallest outsourcing firms.
Say, for example, I want to hire a Russian living in Siberia to design my Website. His living expenses are low, and his English language skills are minimal, so he’s willing to work dirt-cheap. But I soon discover that designing a Website requires a great deal of back-and-forth discussion.
We could send emails to and fro, and use Google Translate to read them. But given the time zone differences, each minor question would add a day -- or more -- of delay.
I speak from experience here: In an ironic bit of reverse outsourcing, an editor of a Russian online newspaper hired my teenage daughter to design and manage its Website. The editor has minimal English, and my daughter doesn’t know any Russian, and they do, in fact, communicate via email.
With simultaneous voice translation, they could set up a Skype call and hash everything out at some mutually convenient time late at night or early in the morning.
In a couple of years, I expect a lot more of us to put in a couple of extra hours of work after the kids have gone to bed so we can deal with colleagues, partners, and vendors overseas.
Companies should start preparing themselves now for a world that has dramatically lower barriers to communication.
— Maria Korolov is president of Trombly International, an editorial services company that provides coverage of emerging technologies and markets. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.