New Smartphone App. Offers Instant Chinese Translation

Posted by Soren Sorensen

Translate Abroad, a Providence-based startup, has taken the first steps toward alleviating the trepidation many travelers feel about venturing into countries whose native languages are made up of characters rather than a safe, familiar alphabet.  It can have a negative effect not only on vacationers, but also on business travelers and foreign exchange students.

Translate Abroad CEO, Ryan Rogowski, told the audience at Betaspring’s Summer 2011 Demo Day earlier this month, “China is the world’s fastest growing economy and the powerhouse of Asia.”

“But there’s one peculiar thing about China,” Mr. Rogowski continued, “and that’s the fact that everything is in Chinese.”

An Illinois native, Mr. Rogowski asked the crowd to imagine a business trip during which travel from Shanghai to Hangzhou is required.  Even if a hotel concierge purchases the train ticket and arranges a taxi to the station, the ticket might still be unreadable to many travelers.

“You see a number with a picture next to it and some other numbers with other pictures next to them.  This is a problem,” Mr. Rogowski said.

“At this point, you have a couple options,” Mr. Rogowski continued.  “One, you could learn Chinese, one of the hardest languages in the world to learn,” which is just what Rogowski did himself in less than a year, between June of 2010 and May of this year.

“Two, you could hire a translator, which isn’t that cost-effective.”

Mr. Rogowski’s presentation emphasized the disempowerment travelers sometimes feel as a result of the disorientation unfamiliar languages can stir in even the most seasoned traveler.  This could result in potentially missed opportunities and lost revenue for businesspeople.

“At Translate Abroad,” Mr. Rogowski stressed, “we believe this problem should not exist.”

Mr. Rogowski asked the gathering to imagine how much easier travel in China would be if a person could one day simply aim a smartphone at the unfamiliar Chinese characters on signs, restaurant menus, train tickets, even ATM screens and receive an instant translation.

“Translation has to be instant to be effective,” Mr. Rogowski said.  “It has to be real time otherwise it’s not practical.”

In addition to the importance of speed, Mr. Rogowski highlighted Translate Abroad’s mobility and practicality—the application doesn’t require the Internet to function properly and, as Mr. Rogowski pointed out, “ China’s Internet infrastructure is not that strong.”

Of the potential markets for a product of this kind, Mr. Rogowski said, “There were 26 million international arrivals to China this year.  That’s a big number.”

And it’s getting bigger.

In addition to business travelers and vacationers, exchange students living temporarily in China, studying the language, are now a major focus as the Translate Abroad team develops its product.

Mr. Rogowski said that, in the next five years, the issue of Chinese translation could effect up to 100 million people.

“If you’ve ever studied Chinese and tried to look up a Chinese character, you understand how painful it is,” Mr. Rogowski said from experience.

Mr. Rogowski’s interest in Chinese language grew out of a love of travel.  “When I was younger,” he told New England Post, “I was lucky enough to play soccer in Europe and that sort of started my interest in other languages.  I studied Spanish in high school and college.”

He lived in Beijing for nine months after earning a prestigious Boren scholarship in 2010 while majoring in electrical engineering and Spanish at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After less than a year of study, Mr. Rogowski was able to pass a professional Mandarin fluency test.

Mr. Rogowski told New England Post that the Translate Abroad App. is still in in the product development phase but that their Chinese menu translator will be available for free download sometime this winter.

“We’re planning to stay in Providence,” he told New England Post.  “We’re actually looking at hiring a few people locally.”

“It’s a technically challenging problem,” Mr. Rogowshi said, “so more help allows us to speed up production.”

“We want to link countries together,” Mr. Rogowski added, “by improving communications technology.”

Mr. Rogowski told New England Post he looks forward to growing the business, gaining momentum and eventually expanding the application to include the translation of other character-based languages in Asia.

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Posted by Soren Sorensen on Sep 25 2011. Filed under Featured - For home page featured article, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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