It’s James T. Kirk’s World, Not Luke Skywalker’s

If you’re keeping track, the world is turning out a lot more like Gene Roddenberry visualized it in Star Trek than how George Lucas did in Star Wars. (And isn’t trekking better than warring anyway?) While we’re still waiting on Death Stars, light sabres, and ’droids with English accents, the technology of the United Federation of Planets has been showing up for some time now—their communicator became our clamshell cellphone, their data cards our flash memory, their tricorder our iPad.

The latest time-warped delivery from the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise? Mobile, universal speech translators. Yow!

Developers have worked on universal translation for years, and a slew of apps are already running on common digital appliances—Apple products from iMac to iPhone, plus Android smartphones, tablets, etc. The goal: instant spoken translations for natural, seamless conversation, with optional onscreen text display, too.

Some voice-translation apps may offer versions for every flavor of computer operating system (OS), too—PC, Linux, OS X—so as to ensure desktop functionality. But Skype and FaceTime videophone calling with built-in, real-time universal translation remains the Holy Grail, so there are major areas of development for both “static” environments like the office (relatively settled and slower-changing) and “dynamic” ones like the mobile market (experimental and faster-changing). You’re going to see better and better apps, for all kinds of devices, starting… well, yesterday.


Life moves so fast now that it does seem like “just yesterday” that the first version of Jibbigo, Spanish-English, debuted in September, 2009. Many translation apps require a constant Internet connection to access online databases, but Jibbigo is an offline app that needs no phone or data connectivity to function. It now includes 20+ language pairs available from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon professor Dr. Alex Waibel and Mobile Technologies, LLC, Jibbigo was among the first ”mobile language translation apps” and is quite simple to use. Say a phrase in your language and the words appear as text in both languages on the screens of phones or tablets—while being spoken aloud in the target tongue. Lag is apparent, and varies, but is acceptable.

Multitasking language app

Jibbigo has other features that keep it in the leading-edge position, such as free and unlimited online use, an “add name” function, so-called “Regional Bundles” for travel to various nations with neighbors you’d also like to visit, and the ability to translate both written text and speech. The iOS version plays nice with VoiceOver, so vision-impaired users can still use small devices with small screens.

Featured in an episode of Popular Science on the Science Channel in 2010, and a Nova episode dubbed “The Smartest Machine on Earth” that aired in 2011, Jibbigo has attracted plenty of notice. So has another firm with its own first-rate universal translator, a company whose name we hear quite a bit…

Google Translate

Google actually does want to dominate the planet—really, you can read about it on the web!—so it upgraded its Translate app, which began life as a standard, online-only translator. As the number of superior offline apps grew, however, Google got the message: The current version of Google Translate has more than 60 offline language packs.

While it is true that you can access most of Google’s services via any browser, whether it’s running on a MacBook Pro with that dazzling display named after your eyeball or a Google Nexus 7, translation apps are much more useful on smaller digital devices. This is why the “app model” succeeds.

Domination through, er, popularity?

Google Translate’s menu shows you every available language pack. You only download the language pair(s) you want to translate between. Although the company calls them “less comprehensive than their online equivalents,” the smaller dictionaries are still useful and will doubtless be continuously refined. Google Translate also deciphers camera input, including vertical text in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

The app has a version for iOS, too, but as yet it has no offline mode and the development roadmap is not being shared with the public. But this—like, oh, everything else—will likely change as we continue to replicate the Star Trek tech environment. Speaking of replication, 3D printers are already producing food, so the day is coming when you just might tell your “kitchen app” that you’re ready for a cup of “Earl Grey, hot.”


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