Turning smartphones into language translators

More language translation tools becoming available in mobile app stores, enhancing mobility of business travelers in foreign countries, say handset makers.
Written by Konrad Foo, Contributor

With more language translation applications becoming available on mobile phones, business travelers can now rely on their handsets instead of translation guides when they visit a foreign country, said mobile manufacturers.

According to Research In Motion (RIM) and Nokia, developers have already built several language translation tools and offer these apps on the device makers' respective application stores.

Citing Gartner figures, Barnes Lam, RIM's director of Asia-Pacific alliance, told ZDNet Asia that global smartphone sales in the second quarter of 2009 increased by 27 percent, compared to the same period in 2008.

With this spike in smartphone adoption, Lam noted that mobile users can expect to see more applications being developed so they can get more out of their devices.

Nelson Wee, Southeast Asia-Pacific marketing manager at Nokia, said business travelers are "always connected via their mobile phones" so having a mobile application that facilitates language translation ensures these travelers will not be "handicapped"--even without a translator--when they are in a foreign land.

According to Lam, language translation tools enables multilingual translation in the form of text, e-mail, short message service (SMS), instant messaging (IM), speech, as well as in chatroom environments. This enables business travelers to communicate more effectively anywhere in the world, with the help of a portable translator that "fits right in the palm of their hands", he said. At the same time, it simplifies travel as well as increases mobility for business travelers, he added.

Similar to Web-based translation portals, mobile translation applications offer a number of useful features, including speech generation--where text is converted into human speech rendered in the voice of a native speaker of the target language--and also speech recognition, where users can record voice clips and translate them into audio clips or text, Lam explained.

Apart from translation, some of these applications include features such as pronunciation tips and native script, to further aid business travelers, he added.

Pictures can speak, too
The executives from RIM and Nokia highlighted a new method of translation that some applications have incorporated--translation of text from pictures.

Interlecta Translator for RIM's BlackBerry, for example, supports this feature. The software tool allows users to take a picture containing text such as a road sign or food menu, with their mobile device, extract the text using optical character recognition (OCR) technology and translate it into the desired language, Lam said.

Wee said Nokia has a similar application called kReader mobile, which also translates text captured in pictures into audio clips that can then be read back to the user.

Coupled with such features, these mobile apps are highly useful for business travelers, especially when they need to review documents printed in a foreign language without the help of a translator, he said.

Lam added: "Mobile language translators eliminate the need for business travelers to carry bulky language guides, and provide multilingual real-time resource on-the-go."

Based in Singapore, Konrad Foo is an intern with ZDNet Asia.

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