Skype can now translate conversations in over 40 languages

— 6:00 AM on December 16, 2014

Douglas Adams' Babel fish may be a work of science fiction, but Microsoft is close to having its own universal translator in software. The firm has introduced a preview of Skype Translator, a new "experience" that translates instant messages and voice communication in "near real-time."

Although the virtual interpreter is currently limited to English and Spanish for spoken conversations, it can translate instant messages in over 40 languages. Microsoft intends to make the translator truly universal, with support for "as many languages as possible on as many platforms as possible."

Here's a heart-warming promo video starring the children:

Skype Translator attempts to remove "ums," "ahs," and other disfluencies from spoken conversations. It waits for the speaker to finish talking before translating, much like a human one would, and it's tuned for conversational language rather than the formal prose targeted by most translation engines.

Thanks to machine learning, "even the smallest conversations help Skype Translator learn and grow." The system has already pored over donated conversations along with translated web sites and videos. Preview participants will also help shape the models and algorithms behind the system. Conversations are currently recorded and analyzed to improve accuracy, though Microsoft says the captured data is given an random ID and can't be traced to the speaker. It's unclear whether recording will presist when the preview period ends.

If it delivers as promised, Skype Translator could be a boon to global communication. At the very least, it's better than sticking a fish in your ear.

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