Can a Pocket Translator Beat a Real Translator? We Tested It. | WSJ

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- Excuse me, could I ask you a question? (pocket translator speaking in foreign language) - I think this is the weirdest conversation you and I have ever had.

- [Narrator] This is Barcelona and this is Alex Rawlings, hes a.

- I am a journalist, a writer and a filmmaker and a polyglot.

(soft music) - [Narrator] Hes also the author of "How to speak any language fluently".

- I spent my whole life telling people about the benefits of learning languages and learning languages myself.

- [Narrator] So a better person to help us test this.

- A brand new Pocketalk device, which is a live translator which in theory should replace the need of learning foreign languages.

to see whether I can communicate with people in Barcelona using it.

(soft music) - [Narrator] Why did we pick this translator? A few reasons, with the click of one button, it can translate 82 different languages and it claims to translate conversations not just statements.

- Lets set the languages Im setting the input language to English, UK and the output language to Spanish, Spain.

- [Narrator] It has noise canceling microphones and speakers so speak in one language and outcomes another.

- We have a microphone on this side, a speaker and a microphone on this side.

So presumably you can use it like this to talk.

- [Narrator] Its smaller than a smartphone but it still has a touch screen and it comes with two years of cellular data.

So those traveling dont need to worry about an international data plan.

- This feels like a very comfortable thing to have in my pocket and very easy to whip out whenever I need it and its extremely light actually I barely feel like Ive got a device in my hand at all.

- [Narrator] It also has a camera for translating signs and menus.

It costs $299, but is it worth it? - So Ive designed three tests today to see how well the Pocketalk device performs.

First up, were going to try for a simple, typical tourist interaction.

Could I have a coffee with soy milk please? (pocketalk speaking in foreign language) (waitress speaking in foreign language) (Alex speaking in foreign language) (waitress speaking in foreign language) - [Pocketalk] Right now.

- Okay, so the first direction seemed to go quite well.

She didnt seem to react weirdly for me speaking to her through a live translation machine and when she brought my coffee, she brought soy milk so that passed the test as well.

(soft music) Could you tell me the way to the cathedral please? (pocketalk speaking in foreign language) (passerby speaking in foreign language) - One second.

(passerby speaking in foreign language) - [Pocketalk] Look, you go up Viary Lane and when you get to Jaimes height you first have your left hand.

- Sorry, could you tell me that again? Im not sure, I understood what was the way to the cathedral please? (pocketalk speaking in foreign language) (passerby speaking in foreign language) - One second.

(passerby speaking in foreign language) - [Pocketalk] You Keep walking until you reach the main street that is Via Laietana and you go up and on the left, when you get to Jaime you will first see it.

- Im not sure it fully understood my accent, Im not sure it really understood the person in the streets accent.

At some point, when I asked do you know the way to the cathedral? I think it thought I said do you know the weight of the cathedral? There are also moments where I think it took a really long time to actually translate.

So Im trying to stop someone in the street whos in a rush and luckily Barcelona is a relaxed city.

So its not such a big problem so Id say that Im not sure we can say that it passed that test.

Now for the hardest trial that Im gonna put this device through.

This is my friend Ash, hes a tattoo artist from Egypt hes been living here in Barcelona and normally when we see each other we speak English.

But this time hes going to speak to me in Egyptian, Arabic.

When this device is speaking Arabic do you understand it very well? What are the things that is translating? What is it not translating? (pocketalk speaking in foreign language) (Ash speaking in foreign language) - [Pocketalk] It is fine, its just necessary to answer the Arabic language in Egypt but work within a hospital with a translator.

All words translate correct words and wrong words.

- I didnt understand any of the translation of what Ash was saying to her.

It was saying all sorts of weird words, weird constructions.

Ash said that it understood my English very well and it was translating my English into pretty good standard Arabic.

But the thing with Arabic is that everybody speaks regional languages.

So thats what the device is claim that it is able to pick up and translate colloquial language in a really good way Ive got to say, Im not entirely sure that was a success.

- [Narrator] A Pocketalk spokesman said, "We are constantly updating our software to improve performance.

Translating slang and various dialects can be difficult to get right 100% of the time." He added, "The speed of translation depends on the strength of the user signal." So where did Alex net out? - I would probably give this device three stars.

Its a great piece of kit, its a great size, very portable and for basic transactions buying things in shops it definitely does what its supposed to do.

But if you have aspirations of being more than just a transactional person in a foreign country I dont think this device is really gonna cut it.

(singing in foreign language) - No.

Wall Street Journal: Can a Pocket Translator Beat a Real Translator? We Tested It. | WSJ - Translation and proofreading