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Voice and Speech on Electronic Translators: Cutting Through the Confusion

You may read about "speech recognition," voice output," or something else that leads you to think that you speak into the device and out comes the spoken translation. This isn't how it works.

There is an effect thatmimics speech to speech undervery specific conditions. It's very useful, but it's not the same as speaking in and getting a translation out.

"...the natural ways in which humans use language and the variable contexts of speech are extremely complex, so much so that programming a computer to truly understand us has been, and will for a long time remain one of the greatest challenges in all science."
-- David Wolman,Righting the Mother Tongue, 2008

One incredibly impressive use for speech recognition is in the iTravl Language Teacher program, so let's look at that and then we'll move on to speech recognition and translation.

Speech recognition in iTRAVL Language Teacher program

Speech Recognition in Language Teacher

The iTravl uses speech recognition in very clever, useful ways in its Language Teacher program.

For example, you are in Language Teacher learning words in the other language. It will show you the word and pronounce it. You then pronounce the word yourself. Language Teacher will grade your pronunciation, telling you things like, "Try again,' "Not quite," "Not bad," or "Excellent." You'll see a graphical comparison, as well. Way,way cool.

But that's not all. After you learn a few words, you'll be presented with an image. Above it will be the words you just learned. Now you have to pronounce the word that describes the image. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in describing what the iTravl does with speech recognition.

Speech Recognition for Translating

You may have seen a demonstration and gotten the impression that the device does "speech to speech" translation. That wasn't the message in that video. What it shows is the ability tolook up phrases via voice input.

In short, there is no such thing as a "voice to voice" or "speech to speech" translator on the market. The technology for such a thing in a pocket-sized device that doesn't run on a pair of car batteries or super-long extension cord just doesn't exist.

So, why are people talking into these devices in the videos and live demonstrations? Well, we have sold these devices to police officers, social workers, and others who have taken the time to become familiar with the phrasebook and have a fair idea of what's in it. They can just say the phrase they want and the device will pull up the translation.

Speech recognition in Ectaco iTRAVL Audio phrasebook

It doesn't take long to have this ability, primarily because of how the phrases are organized. You can look through the corresponding phrasebook section before going out with a device in a particular situation (e.g. to the bank). Knowing the kind of phrases (e.g. "Where is the nearest bank?") will allow you to say the ones that are in the device.

To many people, this is "speech-to-speech translation." But, technically, it's not. It's using the audio phrasebook feature (provided by the Ectaco iTRAVL and newer pocket translators) to use pre-translated speech for specific situations. The kicker here is you have 14,000 phrases covering a wide range of typical situations.

The situations include  Basics, Traveling, Hotel, Local Transport, Sightseeing, Bank, Communication Means, In the Restaurant, Food/Drinks, Shopping, Repairs/Laundry, Sport/Leisure, Health/Drugstore, and Beauty Care.

If we're talking about being able to pull up canned phrases that fit specific situations, then, yes, there is "speech to speech translation." But it isn't simply talking into the device and then whatever you said gets translated.

Translation is a complex endeavor, and doing it on the fly in a portable machine is beyond current capabilities. There are many reasons for this, and to understand them you merely have to be present when a human interpreter goes back and forth between two parties. Now imagine that with a machine that can't make eye contact with people and two or three people talking at the same time.

More, below....


So, yes, you can speak specific phrases into a device and get a translation out. The unit will try to match what you said to what's in its internal database In every implementation today, that's the phrasebook--this is significant, because it means you have to exactly match what's in the phrasebook.

The device does not transcribe what you said to the screen. Instead, it looks up what its program says matches what you said. Therein lies one of the big problems; the device can be way off the mark. Using text entry solves that problem (text entry is very easy with the latest generation of iTravl )

All of the units with this feature perform speech input in English. Many also recognize speech in the target language: Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, English, Polish, etc. A subsequent step is having the unit pronounce it, if you so desire.

The device does not transcribe what you said to the screen. Instead, it looks up what its program says matches what you said. Therein lies one of the big problems; the device can be way off the mark. Using text entry solves that problem (text entry is very easy with the latest generation of iTravl )

Full text translation in Ectaco iTRAVL devices

Voice output for Text Translation

You don't have to study foreign language grammar, conjugate verbs or search for coherent words anymore. Now you can just type any sentence or full text in a handheld device and get its translation instantly. From English to Spanish, French, Russian, German, Polish, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Portuguese languages and back to English!

Moreover, by pressing one button, you can hear the translated text pronounced aloud correctly in the targeted language (with the text to speech synthesized voice).  

More, below....


Fact #1: You cannot simply speak free-form into a translator and have a translation come out. That's not how it works. You first navigate to the general category (easy to do), and then speak a phrase that is in that category.

Fact #2: Speech recognition is not appropriate for high noise environments, because the background noise will create problems. It works just fine in environments where the background noise doesn't require a person to speak loudly to be heard (meaning a non-earplug zone, if you're talking about a factory). If you can understand that before buying one of these devices, then you will be a very happy owner.

Yes, it sounds like we're underselling this feature. In a sense, we are. The point here is to let you know not to assume the device does on the fly translation or will always do a perfect job of speech-based lookup. It has to contend with all kinds of nuances, such as diction errors, background noise, varying rates of speech and pitch, accents, and other obstacles. It does this well, but not perfectly. The iTRAVL devices allow to create your user profile, where you can quickly train the iTRAVL device to recognize your personal voice even better.

Counterclaim: "But I saw this demonstrated! A guy spoke into the device and got the translation out." No, what you saw was not speech to speech translation. What you saw was a use of the phrasebook lookup function. That person doing the demonstration knew exactly what phrases to say. As noted, this feature works well for many situations. But it is not a "free form" translation on the fly.

Perspective: Before these electronic devices were available, people used paper pocket dictionaries  ( successfully, for decades). These typically had a couple hundred words and a few dozen phrases. The electronic ones were doing 20,000 words and 2,000 phrases about a decade ago. The current generation of devices have, in many cases, over 1 million words in some language pairs (as with Spanish). They all have 14,000 phrases per language. So, a lot less gesturing and a lot more actual communication with a lot less frustration.
To do free-form speech to speech translation would require an entirely new design philosophy, plus computing power surpassing what you have on your desktop. You'd need to carry around an enormous battery (it would weigh more than your entire family) or a very, very long extension cord. Thus, all pocket devices use the table model described previously. They are far more capable than their paper predecessors, and people used those paper ones successfully for many decades.
The average American owns a passenger car that won't do the quarter mile in 10 seconds and can't hit 200 MPH. As much as we admire those supercars and would like the speed, the cars we have get us where we're going and are much better than walking when we need to go far. Plus, they cost about a tenth of what a super car costs to purchase and are far less of a headache and expense to own and maintain. The same logic applies to an electronic translation device.


Voice output

Most translation devices today have voice output. This feature is normally redundant for communication, because the other person is reading the translation on the screen anyhow. But proves useful in many situations.

Many people assume the presence of voice output with speech input means all you have to do is talk into the device and out comes a perfect translation. Then the other person talks into the device. But this assumption is wrong.

You can use voice output for purposes such as:

  • When you want minimal distractions with the screen.
  • When you don't want to hand the other person your device.
  • When the sunlight or other conditions make the screen hard to read.
  • You want to learn pronunciation (use the headset or earbuds).

Of course, you would not want to use the voice output when, for example,

  • You want privacy.
  • It's too noisy to hear clearly.
  • You are both using the screen anyhow.



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Article authorship

All articles on this site, unless specifically bylined with an author's name, were written by Mark Lamendola. Mark Has been operating the Mindconnection/Easytranslators authorized dealership for Ectaco since 1998. He was the technical editor for EC&M Magazine for six years and has been writing articles for engineering and related publications since 1996.

Some information sources for these articles are not readily available; that's why these articles were provided.

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