Next month I'll be flying to Alicante, Spain, for meetings with some high tech companies. I do not know how to speak Spanish (I have enough trouble making myself understood in English), so I've loaded arguably the best foreign language translation app available onto my iPhone – Jibbigo.
Jibbigo (a combination of "gibberish" and "on the go") isn't exactly the Star Trek universal translator, but it's close. Hold down a red on-screen button speak a phrase, then let go. The app displays the phrase in text so you can make sure Jibbigo heard right. Then, in a second or two, Jibbigo "speaks" the phrase in the foreign language of your choice. You repeat the process for whomever you're speaking to.
Without training, it recognized almost everything I and my Spanish-speaking co-conversationalists had to say (it did miss-hear "vacuum" as "crack," but that's because Jibbigo is designed mainly for traveling, and it's unlikely you'll be doing housework while on a trip.)
If you've perused the translation apps for your phone, you've likely seen there are more than 500 in the iTunes app store, and more than 1,000 results in the Android Market for "language translators." The one you've likely heard of is Google Translate, which is a single app that translates any language for free. Universal and free is good, especially since you need a specific Jibbigo iPhone/Android language app (Spanish, Chinese, Korean, German, French, Japanese, Iraqi and Tagalog, spoken by a third of the population of the Philippines), and each costs $4.99 except Japanese, which is $27.99.
Plus, Google Translate has a much larger language dictionary; Jibbigo offers around 40,000 words in each language, mostly concerning travel.
So, if Google Translate is more expansive and is one multi-language translator app for free, why do I favor Jibbigo?
Because you actually have to use it with other people in foreign countries.
In real-word usage, Google Translate is clunky. After you speak the phrase, the app speaks it back to you to make sure it heard right. Then you tell your phone to "speak" the translated phrase to whomever you're speaking to – it's not as automatic as Jibbigo.
But a bigger problem is you need to be connected to the internet to access Google's vast translation library, which adds connection time between translations – a minimum of twice as long as Jibbigo, usually longer – all while racking up foreign roaming charges.
Jibbigo keeps its dictionary within the app, so no internet connection is required. But you do have to stick your phone right under the mouth of the poor, unsuspecting person to whom you are speaking (since they have no idea why you're sticking a phone under their nose, their first instinct will be to jerk their head back at the sudden violation of their personal face space) so Jibbigo can accurately hear and translate their response. (A couple of people simply repeated my question to them before I could get them to understand I wanted a response, not an echo.)
How it works
Both Jibbigo and Google Translate work similarly; instead of using strict word-to-word dictionary translation, both use machine learning of the kind used by IBM's Jeopardy-playing Watson – algorithms that allow the app to "learn" from example. Google's translation computers, for instance, have analyzed billions of documents already translated by humans, and scans them for patterns. The rest is a matter of speech recognition technology.
Algorithms for Jibbigo's proprietary machine translation and speech – or, more accurately, sound or phoneme – were developed at Carnegie Mellon's International Center for Advanced Communication (InterACT), where Jibbigo's founder, Alex Waibel is the director. They are working on expanding the recognition dictionary for each language and hoping to add languages as well.
Here's a video of Jibbigo in action: