Last updated:  
Apr 10, 2018 @ 5:56 PM

Over the last few decades, technology has done a pretty remarkable job at bringing us together. A video call is all that it takes to invite out-of-town loved ones into our homes and celebrations. And when video calling just won’t do, we can fly across the world in less time than it takes to clean the house after one of those aforementioned celebrations. Geographical barriers may be shrinking, yet companies like Microsoft are still finding new ways to bring us closer together.  

It’s been a little over one year since Microsoft released Skype Translator to the public last December. The technology acts much like an interpreter, providing real-time translations during Skype calls. Today, the application is available in six different languages including English, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Mandarin

We were fortunate to sit down with Olivier Fontana, Director of Product Strategy and Marketing for Microsoft Research who told us a little bit about the process of developing Skype Translator and commented on where the technology may be headed.

Compared to Microsoft’s wide array of translation languages, Skype has released only a very small subset of languages. But to the research team, deciding which languages to release first isn’t a complicated science. It’s really a very simple strategy… release the languages that are performing the best first.

“When you get close to a score where a human could without too much effort understand the meaning, then we consider [that] it’s a good level [for release]… 70-80%, maybe a bit more, maybe a little less, it depends on the language.”

Ironically, releasing new languages is not about delivering impressive levels of understanding to consumers right out of the gate. Instead, it’s all about collecting data. As much data as possible, all used to improve the speech engine that powers Skype’s technology and accuracy.

The more data we have, the better we are at understanding different accents, different speed[s], different pitches, different tones, all those kind of things.”

In addition to accents, there are many other factors that affect translation quality and they all pose unique challenges.

“We can’t detect sarcasm. We can’t detect a question if it’s in the tone of a sentence. We can’t detect the rest of the situation … For instance, I can tell you that there are some instances when my wife tells me something that, if you were to read the transcript it would seem she was being really nice. However, adding the context of the tone and her facial expressions that this is not really the case.”

Simply put, Skype Translator will never outshine a human translator, but it’s really not meant to.

“A human translation is like driving a Ferrari. I’m bringing you a Fiat 500. Yes, it’s still a car, but guess what, my customers are the ones walking now. I’m the alternative to walking. I’m not the alternative to someone who already understands the language. I’m talking about you and me randomly calling a hotel in Germany or China trying to book a room.”  

Skype Translator is advertised as a consumer product, but the potential business implications are too obvious to ignore, and after talking to Olivier, it sounds like it’s a question of when rather than if…

“Obviously there’s a lot of interest in business. Because if you think of a company like Microsoft, most people speak very good English… because it’s Microsoft … But most companies (large companies) they have a few offices. Think about fast moving consumer groups. Think about Nike or Adidas and all those type of guys that have people in the field, whether they’re [in] tech support or field repair … or they’re sales people in the shop. You name it. They won’t have the [same] type of language skills. When will we be able to support that? … that’s still a question mark.”

Skype Translator may not be ready for an international business meeting just yet, but it’s already changing the way people interact…often for the first time.

“We dream of how people are going to be using [Skype Translator] and how cool it’s going to be. And then, people come with one way of using it that we wouldn’t have even thought about. And we say ‘Wow, that’s cool! That’s actually having a really great positive impact on the world. That’s making people’s lives better.’ Those people are able to do things they weren’t able to do before.”

Some of the most touching stories Olivier has heard are from people using Skype Translator to communicate with their loved ones. For example: 

“My kids can’t talk with their grandmother because they never really picked up their grandmother’s language. They live here in the US and their grandmother is in China. Now they can talk directly to their grandmother for the first time.”

… or to connect extended families for the first time.

“I was never able to speak directly with my mother-in-law because I don’t speak my wife’s native language. For the first time in fifteen years I can talk directly to my mother-in-law.”

Interested to see how well Skype Translator works? We decided to enter the match-making business to put Skype Translator to the test. See a video of the online date below.

Stay tuned for the wedding, we hear Skype Translator is interpreting the ceremony.