Lexiphone Loses Something in Translation

TEL AVIV (AP) -

An Israeli startup says it has come up with a way to overcome language barriers when conducting international business — an automated service that provides translations between English and seven other languages with only a telephone.

Lexifone allows people to get translations without paying hundreds of dollars for human interpreters. The service translates spoken conversations in real time, which Lexifone says is an improvement over free web-based services that are typically limited to typing in text.

Itay Sagie, the company’s vice president of sales and the son of its founder, said Lexifone lets small businesses “pick up the phone and call Russia or China.”

Preliminary tests by The Associated Press show, however, that while the service has promise, Lexifone is not a major leap forward in translation technology.

People have been able to test out Lexifone since October. The service formally launched in the United States this week.

Lexifone works by having computers listen in on conversations. When Jose says something in Spanish, for instance, it is run through four separate translation programs to determine the best translation. Bob then hears the English, Italian or Mandarin translation in a computer-generated voice. The process is reversed when Bob replies.

But how will conversations via Lexifone be received in Moscow or Beijing? Tests conducted by AP reporters in Mexico, France, Israel, China and the U.S. show that Lexifone is still far from delivering the quick, seamless translations it advertises. Using the service proved frustrating, both in the quality of translation and the length of time it took to complete phone calls.

To set up Lexifone, one only has to dial a local access number. But once calls begin, the system slows down. Callers have to wait for prompts before and after speaking, which makes even short translations drag out. The system is also prone to interrupting with reminders about commands or services that users don’t necessarily need.

Sagie said Lexifone logs how many calls customers make and automatically speeds up the reminders as they gain experience.

The translations themselves are spotty. Across conversations in French, Spanish and Mandarin, Lexifone was mostly able to understand topics and provide either the gist of the sentences or key words, if not always in the proper order. It was at its best when translating a dry, businesslike dialogue about trade. Even then, details such as numbers often came out garbled.

With colloquial speech, the service often seemed helpless. When a colleague in China asked in Mandarin, “What’s the issue?” the system waited several seconds before producing the English translation “Australian boar.”