This autumn Skype has released a new version of its video translation/interpreting software which handles Russian. The story made it to major Russian news sources with a great deal of excitement surrounding it, cued as breaking Russian barriers!
While I am not a cynical person, I did feel a certain degree of scepticism when I heard about the development and thought I would test it out when I have a minute or two. My suspicion was well-founded: I do face-to-face interpreting and occasionally remote interpreting via online call facilities and I find that it always works better in real life. When speakers “hide behind their screens” rather than speak to you face-to-face, they sometimes lose a certain personal connection, resort to written scripts which makes their presentation less persuasive.
Today I have finally remembered to try out Skype at lunchtime by calling my English-speaking husband and asking him in Russian to put the kettle on. The way Skype translator works is it types up the message it hears first, then voices it over, and both callers can see the script. I could see my husband got the message OK as I could read the translation from Russian into English typed up by Skype on the screen. What I got back from him was unexpected though, his reply translated to me into Russian involved cattle, not kettle. Skype repeated the same mistake when we carried on the conversation which was getting more and more confusing as we went along. The question whether he would be OK to do the school run was translated to him as an order to do the school run. This shows that Skype doesn’t quite recognise the nuances of intonation as questions and statements in Russian may have the same word order so the paramount factor would be the difference in intonation.
Quick verdict: there is a long way for it to go to become a proper solution, in its current form it would create more misunderstanding or disagreement than break language barriers.
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