Mar 30 2010
Today I noticed something new on a Spanish language site: a toolbar asking me if I wanted to automatically translate the page into English.
This is the type of functionality that makes me get warm fuzzies for Google. Oh, and it brings the Star Trek universal translator and Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish one step closer to reality.
The product team at Google translate has been on a tear lately. In November, they released real-time instant translation – it translates as you type. Check this out:
Starting a sentence:
The text autoupdates:
And gets it exactly right at every step in the process:
In February, the team added support for 7 new languages, bringing the total languages indexed to 41; in the same month, they added the ability to translate text from photos using optical character recognition.
All of these functional changes offer increased utility of the core product for some scenarios – the most obvious, of course, being international travel. When you’re on the road, you can use your mobile device to get train schedules and menus translated on the fly. There’s no doubt that it’s useful, and makes a huge difference in those situations.
But, today, I noticed new functionality that offers to open up the usefulness of Google Translate to a myriad of new situations. While browsing in Chrome, I accessed a Spanish language site, and got an extension bar at the top of the screen asking if I wanted the page translated into English.
So, the browser detected I was on a foreign language site, determined which site, called the Translate tool in, and offered me the ability to have an on-page translation – all without any user interaction! I never even installed an extension!
I checked this out on a few different sites, and the most dramatic was the Chinese language page of Google News:
Here’s the initial page (with the toolbar highlighted):
And here’s the translated page:
This is a very simple interface for creating page translations, therefore the impact is profound. Google Reader has offered integration with Translate for some time, translating feeds as they are pulled in via RSS. But, the reality is that using RSS readers never caught on outside of a small group of journalists. So, the impact of the translation option is muted.
The Google Translate seems to be on a tear lately, increasing the functionality of the product, after several years of intensive investment in improving the core product (discussed in much detail by a recent New York Times article).
David Bellos, in a recent op-ed piece, explains that the true usefulness of machine translation is not in recreating literary classics, but instead in communicating useful, important information in a timely way (to wit: machines were used to translate into Haitian Creole during the disaster relief efforts post-earthquake).
And, if that’s the case, putting translation capabilities directly onto the site you’re looking at means that users will actually use it. This is a huge win for users. In addition it, increases the network effect of the tool (Google Translate accepts user suggestions for improvements). So, as the usefulness increases, so does the importance and dominance of the product.