Several weeks ago Microsoft launched their Microsoft Translator App in Kenya after including Swahili as one of the 50 languages available for translation, and this got Kachwanya excited. He went into testing and tweeting about the Microsoft Translator, specifically wondering if the App will be successful in this region given that other Swahili projects have failed.
After several days of testing, he finally posted his verdict in our Kenya Tech News Facebook Group where he concluded as follows:
In the last one week I have been translating a lot of words from Kiswahili to English using Microsoft Kiswahili English Translator (Exact name of the app is Microsoft Translator) ..you know, to keep up with Tanzania Elections. And I have come up with the following conclusions about the app:
1. It is good when looking to translate a word from Kiwsahili to English or vice versa
2. It is completely different thing when you trying to translate a phrase or a sentence … you end up with things which do not make sense at all … Direct translation
3. It is not possible to copy and paste from a text document to the app or from the app, which I find strange and the way people have become so lazy in everything they do!
4. Probably we need to import some Tanzanians to Kenya to help grow the Kiswahili language in Kenya … they speak it with ease …
5. Looking back I realized that many Kiswahili technology projects have failed in Kenya, and I am looking closely to see if Microsoft will make head way with this project. It has to be noted that the Translator supports over 50 languages, so its failing in Kenya does not means the overall failure of the project
But let’s take a journey and start from the very beginning.
The year was 2004 and I together with several of my yet to be third year students were in a very long holiday, a nine months holiday. The holiday was originally meant to last four months but midway lecturers decided to go on strike, forcing Egerton University to add five more months to our already lengthy vacation. What should a man do to pass nine free months other than use free Internet at Lower Kabete UoN?
I frequented UoN Lower Kabete computer labs and discovered so many things, one of them being an Adventist dating site. I joined and requested friendship with many pretty women from across the globe, and among the few who accepted the requests to chat was a Portuguese woman who knew no English. I got so excited but wondered how I will overcome the language barrier.
After staring for hours at her message in Portuguese, wishing that I could read and understand what she had written, I discovered a hidden link in Google called Language. When I clicked the link it took me to a translate page with two text boxes – one input and the other output. I copy pasted her Portuguese message into the input box, selected Portuguese from the drop down list, then at the second box I selected English as the output language and clicked Translate. She had written, “Hi, are you an Adventist Kenyan? Pleasure to meet you”.
Then I figured out how to reply in Portuguese by composing my message in English, choosing English in the input box, and choosing Portuguese in the output box, then clicking Translate. I did. Copy pasted the long message I had written and sent to her in Portuguese. She never replied. After several weeks of wondering why I wasn’t getting any response, I translated the same message to Swahili and discovered how gibberish the message had become.
Over the years Google has been improving its translation algorithm thanks to the adoption of several AI software and today, if I got a chance to again send a long romantic message to a Portuguese lass from across the globe, I am sure I would receive plenty of replies. And at the time Kachwanya was busy testing the Microsoft Translator App, the chance came knocking at my Facebook Inbox.
“Hi” she had written. I wrote a hi back to which she responded in a broken English saying that she is Portuguese and she knows very little English. She requested that I chat her in Portuguese.
“I can do that, but only if you promise to write in grammatically correct Portuguese” I replied to her but in this format “Eu posso fazer isso , mas só se você prometer escrever em gramaticalmente correta Português”. She replied and after translating her response I read, “I will do my best”.
“This is much better”, I thought to myself as I remembered the no response I had been treated to 11 years back, but there was one big problem – we were chatting in Facebook Inbox which is an instant chat. The need to copy paste chats from her and translate to English via Google, then type my message in English and translate back to Portuguese then copy paste my message and send to her was tiring, and time consuming. The chat never felt like an instant chat anymore. That’s how I realized that the translation business has not gone to where it is needed – in the Instant chat platforms.
Today if you have set your Facebook language to English (UK or US), and another person who has set his/her Facebook message to any other recognized language writes on your Timeline, Facebook will offer a translation for you in your set language. Why isn’t that function available in Facebook Inbox?
As Microsoft Translate goes mainstream, and as Google keeps on improving its translation algorithm, the Instant Chat providers like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, BBM, WeChat and Telegram ought to incorporate one of these mainstream translator applications in their respective chat platforms so that this can happen:
If a beautiful Portuguese woman sends a message in Portuguese to some Odipo who would appreciate receiving the message in English, then the message initially sent in Portuguese should not appear on Odipo’s screen in Portuguese but in English. The Portuguese message could be seen if desired by clicking a tiny icon named “Details”, for instance. To reply to the message, Odipo would compose his message in English but similarly the message should arrive to the Portuguese woman in Portuguese, and this way the Instant chat will be kept instant, and communication between people from diverse languages and cultures would be enhanced more than ten fold.
Microsoft, Google – what I have just described above is what I want from your translator programs and Apps.