By Edoardo Martoni

NTT Docomo, Japan’s largest mobile network, launched a new phone translator app on 1st November that will offer both voice and text translations of phone conversations in real-time.

At the moment it converts Japanese to English, Mandarin and Korean, but other languages like French, German and Italian will be added in the near future.

This technology, known locally as Hanashite Hon’yaku, provides users with fast, accurate translations thanks to Docomo’s Cloud (remote computer servers), and could prove to be an excellent resource for both business and tourism.

Interpreting AppHowever, Docomo is not alone. France’s Alcatel-Lucent and the Israeli Lexifone, as well as Microsoft, are hot on its heels with their own take on this potentially revolutionary software. Alcatel-Lucent’s rival product WeTalk, a landline based service, already offers more languages than Docomo’s app, including Japanese, French and Arabic. This firm also wants to supply a service, called MyVoice, that uses a synthetic voice similar to the user’s as well as planning to create a service that can be used in conferences (for example, 10 people using 4 different languages).

Lexifone, launched earlier this year, is keen to overtake the competition by offering its 10 language service on any phone connection (landline, mobile and Internet). Ike Sagie, chief executive of Lexifone and ex-IBM computer engineer, has spoken about his ambition to use his automated phone interpreter to disrupt the human translation industry in order to tap in to the $14bn (£8.7bn) a year he claims the industry to be worth.

Despite these impressive steps forward, we should not forget that Machine Translation does not have a good track record for providing wholly accurate translation. Microsoft has found issues with its video-chat software, Translating Telephone, which struggles to understand different accents. Even Lexifone admits to certain shortfalls in the overall quality of the language service they provide, saying users should speak clearly and be willing to repeat themselves. Essentially, this new software is ideal for anyone who wants a chat and has the time to be patient with it. However, in a more serious and time-restrained business context, there is nothing like speaking the language itself to avoid any misunderstanding.

How useful do you think this software is going to be? Will it ever surpass human translators? Leave a comment and let us know.

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