This is cool. In the updated version of its Google Translate for Android app released today, Google has added an experimental feature called Conversation Mode that allows users to translate in-person conversations on the fly.
The way it works is, you speak one language into the phone, and then the upgraded app translates out loud what you said into the other person's language. When that person responds in his own language, you'll hear the translation spoken back to you. Presto! You're having a conversation with an Urdu-speaker that otherwise might have been impossible.
This is the closest thing I can think of to the Universal Translator from "Star Trek," providing instant communication among alien species. (Well, the show did predict a number of future technologies...) Imagine how useful the Conversation Mode feature could be while traveling. You'd be able to ask for directions, get a tip for a good local restaurant -- or just be able to say more than "hello" and "thank you" in another language without a Berlitz course.
At the U.N., diplomats could trade in those oversized earphones for smartphones with the Google Translate app, and we'd be one step closer to world peace. OK, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, the new feature only translates between English and Spanish. And there are a few caveats. "Because this technology is still in alpha, factors like regional accents, background noise or rapid speech may make it difficult to understand what you're saying," stated a post on the Google Mobile blog.
And based on my experience with Google Translate on the desktop for deciphering non-English Web pages, it might be wise not to set expectations too high for the new wrinkle in the mobile version. Even so, Google says Translate for Android gets daily usage from more than 150 countries "from Malaysia to Mexico to Mozambique." It handles translation for 53 languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish, and voice input for 15 languages. Now, if it could just translate the garbled language of New York's MTA subway announcements, that would be a true accomplishment.