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This happened about 40 years ago. There was a young couple sitting in silence in a sidewalk café in Berlin, Germany. She was reading a book and he was people-watching. Every few minutes they would look at each other, smile, and look away. I never saw them talk to each other. I was at the next table, and struck up a conversation with her. She said she had met her companion recently, and they didn’t speak each other’s language. I was curious, and asked her, “So how do you talk to him?", and she replied, “With my eyes."

I was reminded of that incident recently when I was reading a piece in the The Washington Post newspaper by an American woman who goes to Haiti as a reporter and meets a Frenchman who speaks practically no English. But this was 2010 and they had the benefit of technology.

After they returned to their respective countries they kept in touch on email. When they chatted on video, he would first write down in French what he wanted to say, paste the words in Google Translate, and then read out the English translation to her. Of course, there would be amusing errors, but eventually there was a happy ending: They got married.

Later, when people asked him how they had got together, he said, “Google Translate." She writes, “With the help of algorithms, no matter how clumsy, what could have been a fleeting meeting became a long-distance relationship."

Two months ago, Google added some really smart features to its translation app, and the result is a whole new experience. You can use the app to converse with someone who doesn’t know your language in real time, and it can also instantly translate text on images (like street signs or menus) into your chosen language.

The long and the short of it is, two people sitting next to each other, speaking two different languages, can have a conversation in real time. You press a button once, and the phone becomes an interpreter. If the couple in Berlin had had access to a mobile phone with the new Google Translate installed on it, they would perhaps be chatting with each other in their own languages.

Purely out of nostalgia, I spoke into it a few words of German that I still remember, “noch ein bier bitte" and out came the voice: “one more beer please." But that’s an easy one, I guess.

I have used Google’s previous translation app off and on for the past year in my attempt to learn Mandarin. It was handy and convenient when I wanted to check a character, but I didn’t get excited about it. I have tested the new app with friends and with my Mandarin teacher, and while the result is not always accurate—there are horrendous grammatical mistakes and nuances get lost in translation—on the whole, it’s pretty impressive. Though many languages don’t have speech output, it’s still a vast improvement over the previous version.

Late last year, Microsoft released a preview of its own live translation tool, Skype Translator, which will eventually allow two people, who don’t know each other’s language, to have a video conversation in real time or send instant messages (it can instantly translate text chats in over 40 languages). If you have a Windows 8.1 device, you can register via the Skype website and check it out. It’s currently available in English and Spanish.

I haven’t used Skype Translator (it will be rolled out by the end of the year) and so I am not in a position to judge how good it is, but what it does is to add a video component to real-time translation, and this is a big leap in technology. “This is just the beginning of a journey that will transform the way we communicate with people around the world," writes Microsoft’s Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice-president of Skype, on his blog.

If you are into science fiction, you’ve probably come across a droid, a robot or a device that can instantly translate languages. We are not there yet, but it’s getting there—faster than we thought.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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