In science fiction movies everyone either speaks English or has a universal translator. Now the iPhone has one that works for 23 languages (all of them human, so if an alien shows up you're still out of luck).

The app is called VoiceTra4U-M. It translates voices from 13 languages and text from an additional 10. The application was designed by the Universal Speech Translation Advanced Research Consortium, or U-STAR. It's being rolled out in the App Store in time for the London Oympics, when millions of people from various countries will (one hopes) be having lots of friendly conversations.


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The app works in two modes: face-to-face (where you speak into the mic and it spits out a translation) or during a phone call. It works on an iPad 2 and iPhone 4G models.

There are limitations: chat time is only an hour and it's designed to work best with travel-related questions and answers ("How much is it to get from Grand Central to Wall Street by taxi?") rather than more complex exchanges about say, postmodern literary theory. By making it available during the Olympics, the designers hope it will gather lots more speech and vocabulary data and learn to do better translations.

The translation is offloaded to remote servers, which introduces a slight delay in the conversation but reduces the amount of computing power needed by the phone. That does put limits on the number of people who can talk at once, since there's only so much traffic that the servers can handle (at least for now). But that could change in the future.

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The app is also on an open platform, so in theory any country could set up a server and start supporting another language.

Google, introduced Conversation Mode for its popular Google Translate last year. The app was last updated June 20, to version 2.4.2. The Google app is reportedly not quite as accurate, however.

Whatever limitations VoiceTra4U-M has, it's better than a fish in the ear.