I wasn’t that thrilled by the Samsung Galaxy S4 New York launch — the faux show theme probably didn’t help — but there were a few standout software features that piqued my interest. Chief amongst them was S-Translate, which promises to make the world a simpler place by providing live language translation. But does it live up to those promises?
Mechanical translation fascinates me. So many other gadgets promise big but offer up what are ultimately just shiny gee-gaws. Instagram’s nice — but it’s just photography. Fitness apps have their place — but you’ve got to have the willpower to exercise first. But speech translation has (at least theoretically) the potential to make a difference in the world. The ability — if the ads are to be believed — to bridge the language gap effortlessly is something that could actually change the world in quite profound ways.
That’s if it works, mind you. At the Sydney launch, I was in full snark mode (those who follow my twitter account may have just noticed) but even I tweeted:
Even cynical me is technically impressed by s translator. IF it works. #gs4
Samsung sent me a review Galaxy S4 last week, and I was keen to see how well S-Translate actually managed translations. Now, I have some very rusty French and German, but not to any kind of assessing level. On the other hand, I come from a family of language teachers, specialising in French but with plenty of flexibility across other languages. So on a visit, I grabbed my first step-mother (don’t ask, complex family tree) to help to put S-Translate through its paces, with a specific eye on accuracy.
She has had decades of experience in instructing people in language translation to and from English, and agrees with me that the potential for mechanical translation is immense — if it’s accurate. If you’re in a foreign country and need some instructions in a hurry, you can put up with slightly spotty translation, as long as the core message gets across. I handled the English speaking into French translation, while I used her excellent French accent to test its French to English translation. All images are completely untouched screenshots as they came up on the S4’s screen.
Her first observation on testing was that S-Translate takes the lazy way out and simply translates each word in a sentence in turn. That’s not a unique thing; many software translation packages work that way.
However, word by word translation has two core problems. Firstly, it presumes that other languages work within the rules of English grammar. They don’t.
Secondly, it means that it sometimes misses the context of what a particular word means in a specific sentence, because translating one word at a time robs you of context. That’s even more of an issue for understanding, because a native speaker is more likely to get the gist of a sentence with broken grammar, but not with broken words!
First up, the French speaking, and here we hit more of a UI problem than a straight up translation one. If you’re going to ask a non-English speaker to speak in French… why are you doing so IN ENGLISH?
S-Translate requires an Internet connection, and it’s quick even off a low-grade connection, but it struggled a fair bit with a French accent. For example, trying to tell someone you need help due to a stolen bag became this:
“Mom” isn’t UK English in any way that I know, either, although that’s a minor quibble.
That translation might confuse some folks; even a slight change in vocabulary got mangled by the S4:
Sometimes that appears to be an issue with how it hears the spoken word. For example, when giving directions, at first the S4 thought she’d said this. Nobody tell Apple, OK — I don’t think Samsung wants another lawsuit on its hands:
Persistence pays off, though; once we’d finished laughing at that, it cracked it on the second try:
What about switching from French>English translation to English>French? For this, I took over speaking duties.
Some translations were spot on:
Others were a little convoluted, but accurate enough
(even my rusty French suggests that “C’est combien” is sufficient in that case)
I can’t quite work out why you might need to ask this, but S-Translate handled it admirably.
Then there’s stuff that’s less clear. While I’d like to think that the gaping bullet wound might be a bit of a giveaway, you wouldn’t want to rely on the S4 in the case of gunfire:
(“Coup” in this case is more akin to a punch to the head than a bullet wound)
And then there’s a question I could see being quite common:
Now, that’s technically correct… but it’s also undeniably quite crude. “Chiotte” is, indeed, the correct room for the expulsion of human waste, but it’s essentially the word “sh*thouse”, rather than, say “toilet”. There’s plenty of other, less crude terms that you could use — but if you weren’t a native French speaker, you wouldn’t know that!
So what’s the essential verdict? The lack of grammar and context creates issues, and there’s undeniably a gap for whoever can crack that particular problem. S-Translate does translate things, but I’d strongly suggest perhaps showing the screen to someone you’re trying to converse with; that way (at the very least) if you are either going to say something mangled or crude, they should get that you’re following the onscreen instructions rather than being either daft or offensive.
Then again, that means taking out your expensive smartphone in an unknown city in front of strangers. That might not always be the wisest course…