Increasing world understanding

Lexifone seeks to make foreign languages less foreign

With its advanced version, the automatic translation system maker aims to connect people with one another, speaking in their own dialects

A woman at a hotel reception desk in Mexico uses the Lexifone app to speak to clients from abroad (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A woman at a hotel reception desk in Mexico uses the Lexifone app to speak to clients from abroad (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The world may be a global village, but each neighborhood in that village still has its own language or dialect. Working to bridge those neighborhoods is Lexifone. With its computer learning system and smart algorithms, the company’s goal is to enable people to speak in their own tongue, with the party on the other end hearing them in their language.

Lexifone works in English (the US, British, or Australian versions) Spanish (European and Mexican), Portuguese (European and Brazilian), French (European and Canadian), Mandarin (Chinese and Taiwanese), Russian, Polish, Italian, German, and Hebrew. Using the platform, anyone can call speakers of those languages, and make themselves understood in any of them.

Lexifone deploys its technology in the form of an app which is either offered directly by a phone company for customers, or directly from Lexifone, via a local access number. Users dial into a foreign calling code and start speaking, with the listener having the option of hearing the speaker talk in their native language, or hearing the caller directly. The translation is done automatically by computer, with the system interpreting what the caller is saying and delivering it to the listener in a form “they will understand and comprehend,” said Ike Sagie, CEO of Lexifone.

That’s an important point as users have to expect translations that may be a bit off. “Text to text translation, like Google Translate, is complicated enough,” said Sagie, and the results often show how hard it is to come up with the right terms, syntax, sentence structure, etc. “It’s even more complicated in voice to voice,” he said. “We manage to do it using patented algorithms that combine linguistics, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and telephony. The end result is a system that allows two people to have a standard conversation using everyday sentences and idioms.”

Still, because they’re machine-driven, translations are sometimes not “natural” – some slang terms may be translated in a way that sounds odd. For example, you might hear “that is acceptable” instead of just “OK.” In addition, users are advised to avoid complicated or obscure terms, because they are unlikely to be in the database. But even so, Lexifone serves its purpose, said Sagie. “If at the end you feel you were understood, and you understand the person you were speaking to, then we have succeeded. You get 100% perception, if not 100% accuracy.”

The system comes with a large database of standard terms and words, but it has the ability to “learn,” so if, for example, a doctor uses the system on a regular basis, medical terms will get included in the database. The more users from different professions and walks of life crowdsource terms, the bigger Lexifone’s vocabulary will get. In the future, he said, the company may distribute industry-specific packages, but for now, the single Lexifone system is robust enough to cover nearly all uses, Sagie said.

The business case for Lexifone is clear, said Itay Sagie, son of Ike Sagie and the company’s head of marketing. Using Lexifone “is like working with a translator, but a lot cheaper” – at least 15 times cheaper or even more, depending on the extent of the live translation services a client would have used instead of Lexifone. The market for translations, Itay Sagie said, was currently about $3.5 billion a year, with most of the business in the US and Europe. “But that’s because translation services are very expensive. With Lexifone the price is just a fraction of live translation, and we expect the market to grow significantly as we deploy the product.” The company’s new version, Lexifone II, was released just a few weeks ago, and is more accurate and easier to use than the original version.

Lexifone is the only service of its kind, Ike Sagie said. “A company in Japan, NTT Docomo, is doing something similar, but it is limited to Japan. In the West, no one else has anything like this.” Lexifone’s product has been available for about a year and a half, and the company has tens of thousands of clients – and last month, Lexifone closed its first big deal, with SFR, France’s third largest mobile network. Lexifone’s mobile app for Android will be available to over 1 million small and medium business customers served by SFR.

Ike Sagie sees many more such contracts emerging in the near future, with 2014 a year of major growth for the company. “We will be attending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of February, and we expect to meet a lot of potential customers there,” he said. “ No one has taken translation as far as we have or has been as successful and accurate as we have.”

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