Microsoft has developed a new feature for its Teams collaboration platform that will allow organisations of any kind to offer online meetings in two or more languages. Interpreters can now translate Teams meetings in real time, it says, and participants can choose in which language to listen.
Available now, the new feature was developed in partnership with the Welsh government, which conducts public meetings in both English and Welsh but had previously struggled to make them work conveniently online.
Live human translation in Microsoft Teams
The Welsh government rolled out Microsoft Teams in early 2020, at the start of the pandemic, to enable remote working among its staff. All day-to-day business is now conducted through the platform using scheduled meetings, chat and channels.
Before the pandemic, interpreters would travel between public meetings in person, translating proceedings for attendees wearing headsets. When these meetings went online, there was no straightforward way to integrate the interpreters. Instead, they would speak into a separate phone line that attendees could dial into.
The new feature will help the Welsh government fulfil its duty to conduct public meetings in both languages, said Glyn Jones, chief digital officer for the Welsh government, in a statement. It will also help encourage both the use of Welsh in the workplace and greater participation among Welsh speakers, he said.
“We’ve had really positive feedback from the people who’ve tested it with us,” Jones said. “The interpreters and the people listening think it’s great.”
Making global meetings more inclusive
The real-time translation feature will “benefit public bodies and organisations that host scheduled meetings in different, sometimes multiple, languages, ensuring they are inclusive and attendees can understand what is being said,” Microsoft said.
It is an example of how technology can reduce the linguistic barriers between communities, says Mark Purdy, an economist and technology consultant who has studied instant language translation systems.
“There’s a lot of evidence from trade economists to show us that language barriers are actually one of the biggest obstacles to training and conducting business,” he told Tech Monitor.
For global organisations, live language translation could make online meetings more inclusive, Purdy says. “There’s an exclusionary effect from language differences, and particularly the use of dominant languages,” he explains.
AI-powered translation has made rapid advances in recent years, to the extent that for some languages it now works effectively in real time. However, AI translation depends on the availability of large training datasets, Purdy explains, so translation algorithms for lesser-spoken, ‘low-resource’ languages are not as advanced. “For languages that are only spoken by a certain number of people, it’s less clear how AI solutions are going to work.”
As a result, live human translation is most likely the best option for the Welsh government, says Purdy.
This may not always be the case, however, thanks to initiatives such as Meta’s No Language Left Behind project, which aims to develop effective translation algorithms for low-resource languages including Asturian, Luganda, and Urdu.
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