It may sound like the stuff of science fiction: Instant language translation during live communication. And it’s not a perfect science yet, but the technology is improving.
That is good news for Christophe Choo, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills, Calif., who has an international clientele. Even though he speaks four languages, he sometimes encounters language barriers with clients and prospective clients.
"A lot of my clients are foreign investors or absentee owners who live abroad and own properties here in the Los Angeles area," he said.
Choo has used online translation services in which you enter text in your preferred language and then request a translation into another language.
But the lag time in pasting or typing text at those sites and cutting and pasting the translated text into an online chat window makes real-time communication cumbersome using those tools. Also, Choo said he has found grammatical problems with the translations, in some instances.
For Giancarlo Tallarico, it was an idea born during the World Cup soccer finals in 2006.
"I was in France — Italy was against them in the final. Some of my partners were in chat rooms, arguing about the outcome of the game." The online dialog was challenged by language barriers — some of it was in broken English.
And it occurred to Tallarico that instant translation tools in the context of online chat could help to bridge the gap.
It’s not an easy thing for a machine, he said, which is why MeGlobe — the online application that Tallarico dreamed up in 2006 — asks for help from its users.
"Machine translation is not perfect. It’s not easy to parse a sentence, figure out the grammar. Certain languages have ‘male’ and ‘female’ (words), etc.
"Let’s do the best job that we can — get machine technology to be the best that it can and then on top of it let’s throw on a neural network and take the user contributions and harness the community to increase the accuracy of our translations," he said.
"It’s a fascinating topic right now as the world gets smaller."
The user feedback is incorporated into an algorithm that is designed to help weed out faulty translations, he said.
MeGlobe was launched earlier this month in public beta form for 14 languages. Registration is free, and is required to access the tool. The company seeks to capitalize on revenue from ads displayed to users.
As they type, users can view the original text that they entered and the translation text in the desired language. The display is reversed for the recipient.
The Latin-based language translations have a high degree of accuracy, Tallarico said, while Asian and Arabic languages are more difficult — Japanese translations are more accurate than Chinese at this point, he said. "We need users to help us out with all of them."
Tallarico estimates that there are about 1,000 testers and contributors to the site around the world — and in mid-August the site passed 10,000 registered users.
"We’re seeing a great deal of them actually providing feedback to our forum and actually contributing," he said.
While Tallarico said he definitely sees business opportunities for using MeGlobe, "if it gets to a legal level you should definitely have a human involved," as the company does not guarantee the accuracy of the site’s translations.
Choo, the Beverly Hills Realtor who works for Coldwell Banker Beverly Hills North, said that he actually invested in MeGlobe because he believes in the potential for the technology.
"I found it to be fairly accurate," he said. "In today’s world, most of the big-end buyers are from Europe and Asia. Definitely language (tools) are important," he said. "When I work with people I like to understand the language and culture."
As with any new release, there are some bugs with the application: some users report problems accessing the chat window in MeGlobe, possibly because of conflicts with firewall security programs, as an example.
Choo said he first learned about MeGlobe about a year ago. He believes that MeGlobe can be an effective learning tool for languages, as it can help users to hone their grammar and spelling for their secondary languages.
"In today’s world, most things I buy are from foreign countries," he said, and he views the tool as useful for eBay and other shopping experiences at auction houses, as an example.
Meanwhile, another company called JAJAH offers a phone-based translation service, rolled out earlier this month, that allows callers to dial a number and translate spoken messages from English to Chinese or from Chinese to English. The system is not two-way — messages are spoken and translated on the same phone.
A truly universal and accurate real-time translation tool is still a ways off, though, and C-3PO — the golden droid in the "Star Wars" films that is fluent in more than 6 million forms of communication — remains the stuff of science fiction.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.