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BYU Introduces Translator App for Use at London Olympics

Andrea Smardon

Say you’re a volunteer at the London Olympics and a Korean tourist asks you a question.  But you don’t speak Korean.  Well now with the new translator application created at Brigham Young University, you can use your smart phone for an instant translation. 

Giovanni Tata is Director of Creative Services at BYU, and the head of this translation project.   He’s demonstrating how the app works with Hwa Lee - one of the student volunteers who has translated, typed, and recorded phrases in different languages that would likely be used in an Olympic setting.   Lee has translated hundreds of phrases for the project.  In all, there are 6000 phrases that the translator is providing for the Olympics.  Lee is one of dozens of students on the BYU campus who have volunteered for this project.  Giovanni Tata – who is originally from Italy - says it’s important to have native speakers do the translations. 

“Only a native speaker can give you the assurance that the phrase is correct.  If you’re giving directions and commands, you have to make sure you’re conveying the right message, otherwise you could create confusion,” said Tata.

The app is intended for use by Olympics volunteers and also by emergency workers, so it’s important that the message is conveyed accurately.  Tata says the app builds off Google Translate but takes it a step further.

“Google Translate is a great tool; the only problem is that many times the translation is not quite accurate.  Sometimes it’s even funny,” said Tata.

The idea for the app originally came from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in England who wanted to contribute to the Olympic volunteer effort.  Tata says BYU is a natural fit.  With students who have done missions all over the world, the school has been developing language tools for years, including a language learning app for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.   Tata estimates there are 120 languages spoken on campus.

“Amazingly enough, the language we finished first was Chinese, and then Korean, and then Portuguese, and of course Spanish,” said Tata, “In some languages we only had one volunteer so it’s taking a lot longer to get all the languages translated. “

Tata says they’re building the database as much as they can before the Olympics, but it will continue to grow as people add to it.  If someone speaks a phrase that is not already in the database, that native speaker can confirm that it is correct, and then it’s automatically added. 

 “We see it as something like Wikipedia for translation.  The more people use it, the better the product will get,” said Tata, “Yes, initially it’s for the Olympics, but eventually it could become a useful tool for people who travel all over the world.”

In fact, Tata wants to use the app for his own trip to Egypt this summer.

“I’ll be one of the first users when I go to Egypt.  I know a little bit, but not enough," said Tata, "With this, I can communicate!” 

The app is currently available for free on the Android and Apple platforms.  Tata says it’s a nonprofit venture for now, but that could change as it grows. 

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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