PROVO — With more than 200 countries expected to compete this summer at the 2012 London Olympics, there will be quite a language gap.
One Brigham Young University professor is working to bridge the divide with a new smartphone app that will be used at the London Games.
It is called "Olympic Translator," and it is very similar to Google Translate. A person sets the language setting, such as English to Russian, and then speaks a phrase into a phone, and the app produces the translation. The person on the other end can then respond through the same process.
"Basically what we wanted to do was create something that could be used by a large number of volunteers," said Giovanni Tata, director of creative works at BYU. "Similar to Google Translate ... but with that most of the time the translation is OK but not quite perfect. In some cases it conveys the wrong message."
To compensate for this, Tata and his team have compiled a list of 5,000 commonly used phrases by volunteers or emergency professionals and put the correct translation in their database. He even went to London to talk to the police and emergency service personnel for their thoughts on the most important phrases to translate. If a phrase is not in the database, the app will draw from Google Translate for the translation.
Tata said the beauty of this backup arrangement is that the volunteer can show the native speaker the translation that Google Translate comes up with, and the native speaker can say if it is right or not. The volunteer can then input that information into the database.
Once there are four or five suggestions for a phrase, a native speaker will review it and it can be added to the catalog of phrases.
"We wanted to create something that would be very easy to use but could be upgraded and updated all the time," Tata said.
Right now, they have all 5,000 phrases available for 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, French and German. The goal is to complete 50-60 languages, including Albanian and Czech.
Tata is no stranger to the Olympics and the struggle between languages. When Salt Lake City hosted the Olympics in 2002, he helped coordinate a language program for one of the official languages of the Olympics, French.
A member of the London Olympic committee heard about this, and three years ago Tata was approached to do something similar. That is when he started on the translation project.
Tata picked the perfect place to develop the language app. According to statistics on the BYU website, there are more than 80 languages taught at Brigham Young University and students from 150 different countries. According to Tata, nearly 19,000 students take at least one foreign language course during a year, and 6 percent of the student population is from outside the United States.
He has had many volunteers working to help complete the project, sometimes more than a dozen working on one language.
He said this will help many volunteers and emergency personnel, even if neither side speaks English.
"With this you can communicate instantly, even if a volunteer doesn't have a smart phone," Tata said.
The Android version of the Olympic Translator will be available this week. The iPhone version will be released sometime in the next two weeks. The app is currently free through the duration of the Olympics. To volunteer to help with a language, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.