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One of my great regrets in life is failing to become fluent in another language. My only consolation was that I figured, someday, someone in Silicon Valley would create a universal translator, like Douglas Adams’ Babel fish in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which could translate any language into any other language.

Google Translate for the iPhone seems like a very cool step in that direction. Google released its app today with a “speak to translate” function. You can speak in your own voice in 15 different languages. You can say one word or a phrase, while pressing the microphone icon on the app’s screen. Then it can translate your words to any of 50 languages in text.

The app can also use your voice to say the translations out loud in one of 23 different languages. The feature uses the same new speech synthesizer voices as the desktop version of Google Translate that Google introduced last month.

Google has been working on the technology for a while. Back in 2008, the company released an HTML5 web application for the iPhone. But the native iPhone app released today will likely draw more usage. It has more features for a better translation experience. Now you can enlarge a word or phrase to appear on the full screen. That way, it’s a lot easier to show the translation to the person you’re communicating with. The app is available on the App Store and works on an iPhone or iPod Touch with version 3 or later of the iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system).

It’s funny. I first heard about the hope of creating a universal translator from former Apple CEO Gil Amelio when he was CEO of National Semiconductor. That would be about 15 years ago. I’m glad someone finally got around to doing it. Douglas Adams would be proud. Too bad Yahoo already snatched the name Babelfish for its own competing product, a text-based web translator.

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