Breaking the language barrier

Breaking the language barrier

November 24, 2015

Subtitles don’t just exist in the movies anymore

In October, Skype, owned by Microsoft, rolled out a free translation service to everyone with the Skype Windows desktop app. Translator, as it’s called, can translate six languages—English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, and Spanish—in real time. Not only do you see the subtitles on your screen, but you’ll also hear the translation out loud. The service can also translate 50 languages for Skype’s text based messaging.

This opens a world of opportunities for communicating with individuals across the globe.

Developing the technology

The preview version of Skype Translator has been available since December 2014. According to the Skype Translator lead, Lilian Rincon, “Translator has been decades in the making, it’s one of the hero projects of Microsoft Research.” She also states, “It’s all Microsoft tech, from speech detection, translation using natural language learning, and then text to speech.” It’s the same team involved in Cortana’s (a virtual personal assistant) speech to text translation.

The technology may not seem complicated, but there are many steps involved. If any step throughout the process fails, the whole conversation is futile.


  • First, Skype has to recognize what you’re saying.
  • Then, technology has to interpret the meaning and determine the best way to convey the message in another language.
  • Lastly, Skype has to relay the message in the other language, ensuring that the listener can actually understand Skype’s audible translation.

Because the software is still in the beginning stages, Skype understands that it will not be perfect. However, the service will continue to improve the more people use it. Lee Ott, Director of Product Management says, “Now it’s ready for a much broader audience, so we’re going to take it out to the world, and that in turn will increase its accuracy very quickly.”

Initial reactions

Hugh Langley from Techradar tested it out. “It was clear that there are still improvements to be made in accuracy when detecting words, particularly my own name, but much of it was spot on,” he shared.

And, Quartz, “a digitally native news outlet, born in 2012, for business people in the new global economy,” put Skype Translator to the ultimate test: translating English to Mandarin. The experiment ran into problems when the software didn’t record the speech to translate. When they moved on to higher level academic conversations, the message was so lost in translation that they couldn’t even grasp a general idea of what the other person was saying.

Overall, Quartz claims, “Our test here shows that with a lot of patience, you could probably have a very basic conversation consisting of simple phrases, especially if the Mandarin speaker were willing to repeat themselves many times or say things in different ways until hitting on something Skype can translate accurately.”

Opening doors for communication

Collectively, Skype users place more than 3 billion video and phone calls each day. With more people having the ability to communicate across language barriers, this number may rise.

USAToday reports that individuals have already found useful purposes for Translator, including “a PhD student who helped enhance his thesis with help from experts in other countries, a non-profit worker who used the service to unite donors around the world, and a small business owner who communicated with his best suppliers through IM.”

Alex Burinskiy, a technical analyst, is excited about the opportunity for communicating with family members that he may have otherwise lost touch with. He thinks Skype Translator will be helpful in “creating a new level of understanding between disparate cultures.” Although, he is slightly worried about privacy concerns. One way Skype hopes to improve the technology is by collecting bits and pieces of conversations to help make translations more accurate. But, Skype claims that this data will not be traceable back to its original source.

Skype users can start thinking outside the box for communicating with a broader audience about an array of topics. Right now, there is no release date for when Skype Translator will be available for Macs, but Skype is sure of one thing: over time, Translator will continue to perfect its service and be available to more individuals across the world.


How good is Skype’s instant translation? We put it to the Chinese stress test