“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech… And they said, Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven… And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower… And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

“So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

(Genesis, Chapter 11, Verses 1-9)

The Bible ascribes the diversity of languages on Earth — some 6,500 tongues in current usage, according to most estimates — to the hubris of post-flood mankind in seeking to build a tower to heaven, and a divine decision to punish that Tower of Babel construction project by “confounding” man’s capacity to communicate in a single tongue.

Now, an Israeli start-up claims to be perfecting the best means of overcoming that biblical curse of global language barriers.

“Our vision is to allow two people anywhere in the world to communicate and understand each other, no matter their language and no matter the medium — phone, Internet, or face-to-face,” said Ike Sagie, the CEO of Lexifone. “We believe that our product is the harbinger of this revolution.”

A step toward conquering the Earth’s linguistic cacophony, Lexifone lets you speak to anyone in English and (so far) seven other languages. The person on the other end (or right next to you, using an Android app) hears what you’ve just said in his or her own language. Right now, speakers of English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian, and Mandarin can call each other and have their conversations automatically translated; on the agenda are Japanese, Arabic, Korean, and Hebrew. More languages, including other Chinese dialects, will follow, eventually covering most global language requirements.

Using Lexifone “is like working with a translator, but a lot cheaper,” said Itay Sagie, son of Ike Sagie and the company’s head of marketing. It’s at least 15 times cheaper, he posits, depending on the nature of the live translation services a client would have used instead of Lexifone.

“Our machine interacts with you, hearing what you say and translating it for the listener. The system is extremely accurate, with the machine engaging in a back and forth with the speaker to ensure that it understood what was being said,” Itay told The Times of Israel. The system can differentiate between dialects, such as American, British and Australian English, and can take into account regional accents, thanks to voice-to-machine software packages produced by Nuance and other companies. The system is based on enhanced voice recognition with a translation mechanism.

A woman at a hotel reception desk in Mexico uses the Lexifone app to speak to clients from abroad, hearing the conversation in Spanish, regardless of the language spoken by the other party. “Mexico is now a Multi-Lingual Zone, thanks to Lexifone,” said Itay Sagie, the company's director of marketing (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A woman at a hotel reception desk in Mexico uses the Lexifone app to speak to clients from abroad, hearing the conversation in Spanish, regardless of the language spoken by the other party. “Mexico is now a Multi-Lingual Zone, thanks to Lexifone,” said Itay Sagie, the company’s director of marketing (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The capacity to “talk” to computers and be understood by them has been around for years. What Lexifone brings to the table is a unique translation system, called computational linguistics, which can take the sentences spoken by users and quickly turn them around into the same sentence translated into another language. Lexifone strives not just for a literal translation, but a cultural one, too. “We have a committee that evaluates phrases and idioms in different languages and decides which ones are the best match in each corresponding language,” said Itay.

Hundreds of companies large and small are already using Lexifone to provide translation services for customers, clients, or employees, he said. “Among our biggest customer segments are expats who are living in countries where they are less familiar with the language. They use our software to make phone calls to government agencies, businesses, and the like.” The system works online, at the Lexifone website, or via an Android app — which, Ike Sagie said, can also be used for live, face-to-face translations via the Android device’s microphone.

“We also have many small and medium-sized businesses using it, getting translation services for a lot less than they could with a live interpreter,” Ike added. “Right now we are working on signing up large corporations and governments that have expressed interest in our services.”

Many of those using Lexifone for translation services also use it as an IP telephony app, similar to Skype, allowing users to make calls via the Lexifone app to more than a hundred countries at low rates, with the translation service built in.

Lexifone’s pride and joy is its accuracy, said Itay. There are other tools on the market, he said, but they “will give you gibberish for the most part. No one has as advanced a translation system as we do.” Several other companies, notably NTT Docomo in Japan, are making forays into the automatic translation market, “but their system is much more limited, translating Japanese to and from only a few languages. No one has taken translation as far as we have or has been as successful and accurate as we have,” the younger Sagie said.

In a demonstration at a recent technology industry event, Lexifone worked as advertised. A conversation with a Mandarin speaker went surprisingly smoothly, from the exchange of pleasantries (“hello, how are you, I am fine”) to a discussion of the weather (“It’s raining here, what’s the weather over there?”) to a relatively complicated sentence (“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”). Most of the translations were nearly instantaneous, with a two-second computer beep differentiating between the original sentence and the translation, which both participants in the conversation heard. (The woodchuck line was a bit slower — about three seconds.)

Lexifone is a relatively young company, established in 2010 at the Hi-Center accelerator in Haifa, but its products are already in use around the world. “We are working in countries where there is a high language barrier, such as Russia, China, and Latin America,” said Itay Sagie. Among the company’s marketing efforts is developing programs for local governments in the US, said Ike Sagie. “Many local and even state governments are doing business with companies, suppliers, and officials in foreign countries, and especially in the US many people do not have a foreign language. With Lexifone they will have a much cheaper and easier way to communicate with non-English speakers.”

Tower of Babel by medieval artist Pieter Breugel the Elder. Painted in 1563, it is currently on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Photo credit: Courtesy Google Art Project/Wikipedia Commons)

Tower of Babel by medieval artist Pieter Breugel the Elder. Painted in 1563, it is currently on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Photo credit: Courtesy Google Art Project/Wikipedia Commons)

Lexifone’s latest project is an R&D facility to be built in China, which will work on expanding and perfecting the system for Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. Under the guidance of an Israeli-owned company called The PTL Group, which helps local firms navigate the Chinese business environment, Lexifone recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Changzhou, a city near Shanghai where numerous Israeli companies have set up shop. “We will be hiring Chinese staff and bringing in workers from Israel, and begin working with Chinese companies that are looking to expand their exports, but are stifled due to language challenges,” said Itay. “Working in China will be a challenge, but no greater than the challenge we successfully met in building our application.”

Growth has been going according to schedule, said Ike, and the company aims ultimately to enable smooth communication for anyone, anywhere. That’s quite a  goal, given those 6,500 languages — even though about 2,000 of them are said to be spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.

But Ike Sagie is undaunted. “The technology behind Lexifone is very sophisticated,” he acknowledged, “but the user interface is as simple as possible — all you have to do is talk.”