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Microsoft unveiled this week the first phase of its Skype Translator program, which offers real-time translation of spoken and written language. For users of the newly rebranded Skype for Business, formerly Microsoft Lync, the service has potential to help them clear major language barriers that can inhibit international enterprise collaboration.
Language barriers, idea development in foreign languages and mispronunciations can inhibit communication between international workers. Skype Translator could allow workers to express themselves in their own language without worrying about miscommunication, said Alaa Saayed, unified communications industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan.
The first phase of the Skype Translator program will include real-time translation for two spoken languages, English and Spanish, and over 40 languages over instant message, wrote Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president for Skype, in a blog post. The service is available to customers who signed up to participate in the program and are using Windows 8.1 on the desktop or mobile device.
Skype Translator relies on speech recognition and automatic machine translation to turn text into spoken word. The software was built from translated webpages, captioned videos and transcriptions of recorded Skype conversations. These were analyzed and used for statistical models that map incoming audio to text and then translate the text. The translation is displayed as an on-screen transcript. The more the software is used, the better the software will perform. More languages will be available for translation over time, according to a Skype blog post.
Differentiating from the competition
Skype Translator could be viewed as a competitive differentiator by unified communications and collaboration vendors, Saayed said.
"Skype Translator adds to the value of Skype for Business with a capability that will be useful for many businesses, including verticals such as education, hospitality and healthcare," he said.
For Bellevue College in Bellevue, Wash., which has an on-premises deployment of Skype for Business, a real-time translation service could be a benefit for its International Student Division.
"I could see that as a huge advantage in talking to prospective students," said Russell Beard, vice president of information technology and services.
The contact center is another area where users could benefit from Skype Translator's real-time translation services, according to Nemertes Research analyst Lisa Durant. Contact center agents who are fluent in foreign languages are highly sought after, but difficult to find. With a service such as Skype Translator, and as more spoken languages become available, contact centers would not have to worry about finding an agent fluent in other languages.
Potential real-time challenges
But there are challenges that could arise from relying on a translation service, specifically the accuracy of the translation.
"Languages have different sounds and alphabets and the more complex the language, the more difficult it is to translate," Durant said. She noted that while Spanish is one of the languages available for spoken translation, there are different dialects that could lead to miscommunication.
Slang terms, idioms and other colloquialisms could also impact the accuracy of translations. Microsoft has worked with social media sites like Facebook for several years to help its translation services understand slang terms, the Skype blog said. The preview program will help Skype Translator learn more casual ways of communicating, "bringing the system closer to compatibility with truly conversational speech."
What Skype Translator can't do for Microsoft global partners
Skype for Business replaces Microsoft Lync