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By Wired

February 8, 2010

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Google engineers are working on a translator for Google Android smartphones to convert one language into another quickly enough to allow speakers without a common language to communicate with one another in near real time.

We’ve seen a few stabs at this concept, like a 63,000-word real-time translator and a cute 400-phrase iPhone app, both of which we compared to Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish from his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy novels — the same comparison drawn by Times Online and Mashable about Google’s voice translation plans.

The comparison is still apt; and now, Adams’ vision of a plurality of languages communicating smoothly with one another is closer to reality. Google says it plans to release a basic version of its first real-time translation services in two years.

Google has its work cut out for it. Translation presents a tougher challenge than re-imagining e-mail or copying Microsoft Office as a cloud-based service. Humans are nuanced communicators — which is why, to date, the translators we’ve seen are basically elaborate gimmicks, limited by the size of their dictionaries and inability to parse phrases.

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