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Parlez-Vous Francais? No, But My Phone Does.

As you can probably tell by what I do for a living, I have a good command of the English language. Unfortunately I do not have similar skills when it comes to mastering other languages.

I took two years of high school Spanish and still have trouble ordering lunch in a Mexican restaurant. My wife was born in Italy. You’d think after 36 years of marriage, I would’ve picked up enough Italian to at least converse with her family. Nope. When my wife wasn’t around I had to depend on my kids to translate. Occasionally they would tell me something and then promptly snicker, leading me to believe that something might have gotten lost in the translation. I could never be sure, though.

During a business trip to Germany some years ago, however, there was no doubt things were getting lost in the translation. One evening, bored with watching John Wayne speak to the bad guys in fluent German on TV, I recalled seeing a bar down by the train station and decided to go there for a beer. The place looked more like an old, slightly run-down hotel, but it said “BAR” in big white letters on the building and the place always looked busy at night. Surprisingly busy for such a small town. That was when I found out that “bar” means something different in colloquial German than it does in English. Let’s just say the waitresses were serving more than suds there.

A week later I was in the city of Cologne one evening when two men on bicycles approached and identified themselves as police officers. Since I was working for a German company, I’d been taking classes to learn the language and for some reason I thought that would be an opportune time to demonstrate how much I’d learned. Bad idea! I have no clue what they heard that night, but when they reached for their firearms I was pretty sure it was not what I had wanted to say. Fortunately, the rest of their questioning was conducted in English. Broken English perhaps, but left to my own devices it could’ve been bullet-riddled German!

Hopefully you haven’t had similar experiences, but if you’ve ever traveled abroad you may know how frustrating it can be trying to communicate in a foreign language. Thanks to new technology developed by a company called SpeechTrans, however, that frustration may now be a thing of the past.

SpeechTrans partnered with Nuance Communications, a company that specializes in speech recognition and conversion, to develop a mobile translation app for the iPhone, iPad, and fourth-generation iPod Touch. You can either purchase individual language translators, such as English to German, or English to Spanish, or something called the Ultimate package, which puts 14 different languages – English, German, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Dutch, and Swedish – right at your fingertips, with no limit on how you combine them. Want to translate English into French? Spanish into Polish? Chinese into Japanese? No problem. Just select the two languages involved, type in the sentence, and in a matter of seconds the translation appears on the screen. The software also gives you an audible translation, spoken with the correct accent and pronunciation!

Not a good thumb typist? Hard to believe in today’s texting-mad world, but if so you can simply push the software’s “record” button, speak into your device (or microphone headset in the case of the iPod Touch) for up to 55 seconds, and the software will translate whatever you say. How cool is that? Each time you hit the “record” button, it counts as one “transcription,” and the number of free transcriptions is limited, but you can always buy more as needed. And the good news is that each transcription is saved in memory so you can reuse them.

What the voice feature means, in practical terms, is that you’re essentially carrying an interpreter around in your pocket. Say, for example, you’re in Europe and you need detailed directions on how to go somewhere, including what buses or trains to take, where to get them, where to get off, etc. Under normal circumstances that could be a significant challenge. With this app you merely have to find a policeman or friendly local, whip out your iPhone, explain what you need in English, and have it automatically translated into something they can understand. They then respond in their own language, the information gets translated into English and stored on your iPhone so you can refer to it again as needed to reach your destination.

It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? I thought so too, but after testing it for several days I have to admit, I’m impressed. So was the Pentagon apparently. They’re reportedly evaluating the technology for possible use by U.S. troops overseas.

The company claims the program’s translations are more than 90 percent accurate. What they don’t say is how it deals with things like regional dialects, which are quite common in many foreign countries. Misspelled words can also be a challenge, which is where the audible part of the program comes into play – if you can’t spell it correctly, hopefully you can pronounce it correctly. And if something should get lost in the translation, at least your iPhone won’t laugh at you like my kids used to do.