A few years before, me spent the day at Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery outside Kyoto, Japan. At the end of the tour there is a bar, and (professional advice) is one of the places in the world where you can get Suntory whiskeys for the price. When I bought my first glass of whiskey, a couple of Japanese who took Shinkansen from Tokyo waved me to their table. Through a pantomime, one of them offered me the taste of whiskey in a glass, and we eventually tasted alcoholic beverages for hours and talked about Japanese whiskey through the magic of Google Translate on our phones. It was a stopping, awkward way to talk, but it was magnificent and still stands out to me as one of the best experiences of my life.
But what if we could actually talk by voice? You know, the old-fashioned way? Such is the promise Ambassador Interpreter, a device priced at $ 179, and whose ultimate goal is to bring a myth Babel fish the closer to life.
The interpreter comes as a pair of headphones over the ear, one for the right ear and one for friends. Download the Ambassador mobile app – which completes all the translation – and pair both headphones with your phone using Bluetooth.
The ambassador has three modes of operation. Converse mode is a two-way system: you both select one of the 20 available languages and 42 dialects, and the app translates your language into his and his into yours. (Up to four people can talk this way through the app at once if you have enough headphones.) The lecture mode is a one-way system that translates your speech and streams it through your smartphone speaker in another language. The listening mode goes the other way, listening to the language of your choice, translating it into your own language and putting it into the handset.
The good news is that both Converse and Lecture work surprisingly well. While the Ambassador app can be a bit awkward to use – especially since you have to manually reconnect to the headphones every time you turn them off – it’s intuitive enough to run things without a lot of handshakes. It’s not an app you want to use if you’re in a hurry, because you have to manually select languages to listen and translate, which can take time. (You can also configure whether you want to listen to a male or female voice translation.)
Once everything is set up – and, presumably, after convincing the other party in Converse mode that you’re not crazy because you want them to put on one handset – you can move on to the conversation. This can be stopped a bit, as the ambassador is not always on by default. You have to touch the side of the device to tell it to translate, which makes the use of two of them a bit of a walkie-talkie operation. In other modes, pressing the button once will leave it on until you press it again. Volume buttons are also available on the side of each handset.
As you can imagine, the translations are not perfect, but if you speak clearly and reasonably slowly, the system works very well. He struggles with some proper names, but can pretty easily deal with slang and informal speech (like “I’ll get them”). The app also keeps a current log of everything in the text, so if you hear something wrong that you said, you will have a chance to correct things. Keep in mind that in a two-way conversation you have to be pretty close and personal for things to work, which can be a little challenging in our pandemic situation, but I’ve found that an ambassador works well under masks.
I had high hopes that in the way of listening I would be able to watch movies in a foreign language in their mother tongue, but that did not fail. Although I managed to get a reasonable translation of things like News in slow Spanish, the talk about the main program and films was always too fast for the ambassador to follow. Most of the time the system just didn’t catch any dialogue at all, or if it did, here or there it was just a random word. And if there is background music or special effects that you have to deal with, forget it. (I also had to turn up the volume on the TV and sit a few feet away from it so that even slow, messy speech could work.)
I’m also not in love with hardware. The egg-shaped device is awkward to hold, and I found it constantly slipping out of my hand when I tried to put it on. When it passes over your ear, it slams loosely and does not feel safe enough to use while on the move. The headphones are charged with a micro-USB cable, and although the six-hour battery life is promised, I went back to the ambassadors several times and found that they were both lowered to zero, even when they were not in use. some time. Some battery management work seems to be fine.
In the end, the concept is a winner; if some of the practical distractions can be worked out, it will be a great product. For now, if all parties are willing to take their time, this is probably the most effective way to overcome the language barrier, other than having a human translator do it. And to that, I say bell!