How Google Makes the Web Worldwide

Wednesday Feb 22nd 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Google Translate is changing the nature of personal and business interactions on an international basis.

Tracking tech news and commentary, we all get caught up in the scandals, politics, speeds and feeds and competitive jockeying between companies all competing for survival and dominance.

But every once in a while, you just have to stop and smell the awesome. Sometimes you realize that technology is making the world a better place in profound ways that would have been pure science fiction just a few years ago. Such a realization happened to me yesterday.

I posted an item on Google+. The post got more than 350 comments, and many of them in Chinese.

For the past few months, I had been using Google Translate for occasional translation of foreign-language posts. I had been copying and pasting into the Google Translate page, and finding it incredibly useful.

But I had heard about a Chrome plug-in created by Google called Google Translate for Google+, which places a "Translate" link on each comment that you hover your mouse pointer over on the social network. The plug-in shipped last month.

So I installed it. And: Wow!

Now, whenever I see any post or comment anywhere on Google+ that's in a language I don't understand, I just click Translate, and in a fraction of a second the entire thing is transformed into English, and highlighted with yellow so I know what's been translated.

The translations aren't always perfect. Google uses statistical matching, and doesn't arrange the translation according to grammatical rules. So you get the words, but not elegant or always-correct phrases.

Still, they're much better than you might imagine. I can always get at least the main idea someone is expressing.

The Google Translate for Google+ extension is spreading like wildfire across the network, and I've noticed that a lot more people are using it. It already has more than a quarter-million users. Most of the Chinese commenters on my post probably used it to understand what I was writing about, just as I used it to understand their comments.

Google+ is a very international network anyway. And having a Google Translate button makes the entire social network far more, well, social.

I don't mean to go all Age-of-Aquarius on you, but this is breathtaking not just in its potential to unite and connect people, but in daily practice.

Right now, as you read this, thousand of people are casually interacting with each other on Google+ even though they don't speak the same language.

In the past, everyone who spoke a specific language would go off in their exclusive corner of the Internet and talk among themselves. The so-called “World Wide Web” was really many webs, separated by language barriers.

The Italian speakers weren't part of the Chinese conversation. Brazilians didn't know what the Indonesians were talking about. And an “international” conversation, for Americans, might involve talking to a Canadian, a New Zealander and a couple of dudes in Kingston upon Hull.

But now those barriers are melting away. The World Wide Web is finally becoming worldwide.

Without any big announcement, TV commercials or even significant mention by the tech press, Google has ushered in a world that never existed before, one in which the language barrier is gone. People who speak less common languages are no longer excluded and anyone in the world can just drop in on the national conversation of some far-flung country and hear what people are talking about.

And it's not just on Google+. Google Translate has been showing up all over the place.

For example, you can translate words and phrases directly in the Google Search bar. If you type "translate obrigado to English," the first result says: "Translate "obrigado" from Portuguese," then the translation: "obrigado - thank you." (You don't even need to know what language it is; Google will tell you.)

The Search function goes in the other direction, too. If you type "translate thank you to Italian" you get the response: "thank you - grazie."

When you use Google Chrome and visit a site that's in another language, a bar appears at the top telling you what language the site is in, and asks you if you want to translate it. A single button click translates everything on the site into English.

Google has free apps for translating, too. And they're amazing.

I haven’t tried the Android app. On the iPhone, the Google Translate app has a microphone button. You tap it, then talk. When you're done, the app will translate what you said into any language you choose. The word or phrase will be written in the foreign language, with three buttons. One speaks the foreign-language translation through your phone's speakers. Another goes full-screen with the written translation, so you can show it to someone. And the third "favorites" the translation, so you can quickly go to it in the future.

The apps support more than 50 languages.

Google Translation apps enable you to sit there and have a conversation with someone who speaks a language that you do not.

Google is constantly improving not only the features and functionality of Google Translate, but also the quality of the translations.

Many people who have encountered it in the past may be surprised by how good it's gotten recently.

Google isn't the only company to offer machine translation. But from what I can tell, Google is the only company that's mainstreaming it. Their solution is very good, ubiquitous and constantly improving.

Google Translate is science fiction made commonplace.

And although the quality and ubiquity of Google Translate have both grown gradually, it's still a revolution in human culture. It's giving people all over the world the ability to have simple, natural conversations with each other, even if they don't speak the same language.

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