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Google Translate: leveraging the world's largest data store

How many of you use Google's translation tools? They're built into Google Docs, Gmail, and the Google translate website.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

How many of you use Google's translation tools? They're built into Google Docs, Gmail, and the Google translate website. With support for 52 languages, the tools are incredibly powerful in an increasingly flat world.

While only human translators can really capture the nuance and connotation of human speech, Google translate is the premier online tool for fast translations. Google Docs can be quickly translated, mail can be automatically translated, and now Google's automatic YouTube transcription services can potentially translate video into other languages as well.

A recent feature in the New York Times highlights just how the company can develop free tools within very short timeframes when commercial companies devoted to translation can take years to achieve results:

But in the mid-1990s, researchers began favoring a so-called statistical approach. They found that if they fed the computer thousands or millions of passages and their human-generated translations, it could learn to make accurate guesses about how to translate new texts.

It turns out that this technique, which requires huge amounts of data and lots of computing horsepower, is right up Google’s alley.

Since Google essentially knows everything that has ever been written on the Internet and has also scanned and OCRed millions of texts, their translation tools are second to none. This certainly has commercial implications for Google, since it can now provide targeted ads regardless of language and make the tools built into their paid Apps services even more compelling.

It also drives more people to use Google's search capabilities, since pages from search results are now accessible regardless of language (pages that aren't in users' native languages get an extra link asking of users want to translate the page). The more traffic that Google can leverage, the more money they make.

Perhaps more importantly, these tools are now being incorporated into the smartphone market in which Google is quickly becoming a major player. As the LA Times reports,

If you're traveling in Beijing and find yourself hungry for some American cuisine, you can activate the translator on your Google-powered phone, and say, "Where can I find a hamburger?" Moments later, the phone will spit out the phrase in Chinese -- both as a string of text and, if you prefer, in a computerized voice.

Conversely, should you happen to be stopped on Sunset Boulevard by a visiting Japanese businesswoman with a question in her native language, simply ask her to speak it into the phone. Wait a beat, then press the play button to hear the translation: "Is it going to rain today?"

This, of course, is why we continue to flock to Google, despite some privacy and legal missteps. They're using their massive computing power, engineering know-how, and extraordinary data stores to provide us with free tools that work better than those of any other competitors.

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