A few years ago, I spent a day at Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillery outside of Kyoto, Japan. There’s a bar at the end of the tour, and (pro tip) it’s one of the only places in the world you can get Suntory’s whiskeys at cost. When I purchased my first glass of whiskey, a pair of Japanese men who’d taken the Shinkansen in from Tokyo waved me over to their table. Through pantomime, one of them offered me a taste of the whisky in his glass, and we ended up spending hours sampling spirits and talking about Japanese whiskey through the magic of Google Translate on our phones. It was a halting, awkward way to have a conversation, but it was glorious, and it still stands as one of the best experiences of my life.
But what if we could have actually conversed by voice? You know, the old-fashioned way? Such is the promise of the Ambassador Interpreter, a $179 device that aims at long last to bring the mythical Babel fish as close to life as it’s ever gotten.
The Interpreter arrives as a pair of over-the-ear headphones, one for your right ear and one for your friend’s. You download the Ambassador mobile app—where all the translation work gets done—and pair both headphones to your phone using Bluetooth.
Ambassador has three operational modes. Converse mode is a two-way system: You both pick one of the 20 languages and 42 dialects available, and the app translates your language to his and his to yours. (Up to four people at once can talk this way through the app, if you have enough earphones.) Lecture mode is a one-way system that translates your speech and streams it through your smartphone’s speaker in another tongue. Listen mode goes the other way, listening for the language of your choice, translating it into your own language, and piping it into your earpiece.
The good news is that both Converse and Lecture work surprisingly well. While the Ambassador app can be a little awkward to use—especially since you have to manually reconnect to the headphones every time you turn them off—it’s intuitive enough to get things going without a lot of hand-holding. It’s not an app to use if you’re in a hurry, as you have to manually select the languages to listen for and translate to, which can take a bit of time. (You can also configure whether you want to listen to a male or female voice translation.)
Once everything’s set—and, presumably, once you’ve convinced the other party in Converse mode that you’re not a lunatic for wanting them to put on a single earphone—you can get down to conversing. This can be a little halting, as the Ambassador isn’t always-on by default. You have to tap the side of the device to tell it to translate, which makes using two of them a bit of a walkie-talkie operation. In other modes, pressing the button once will leave it on until you press it again. Volume buttons are also available on the side of each earpiece.
As you can imagine, translations are far from perfect, but if you speak clearly and reasonably slowly, the system works very well. It struggles with some proper names, but it can handle slang and informal speech (like “gonna get ’em”) fairly handily. The app also keeps a running log of everything in text, so if it mishears something you’ve said, you’ll have a chance to correct things. Note that in a two-way conversation, you need to be pretty up close and personal for things to work, which can be a bit challenging in our pandemic situation, but I’ve found that Ambassador works just fine under masks.
I had high hopes that with Listen mode I’d be able to watch foreign-language movies in their native tongue, but this didn’t pan out. While I was able to get a reasonable translation of things like News in Slow Spanish, the speech on mainstream programming and movies was always much too rapid-fire for Ambassador to keep up with. Most of the time the system just didn’t catch any dialog at all, or if it did, it was only a random word here or there. And if there’s background music or special effects to contend with, forget it. (I also had to crank the volume up on my TV and sit a few feet away from it for even slow, uncluttered speech to work.)
I’m also not in love with the hardware. The egg-shaped device is awkward to hold, and I found it constantly slipping out of my hand when trying to put it on. Once over your ear, it kind of flaps there loosely, and it didn’t feel secure enough for use while in motion. The headphones recharge via Micro-USB cable, and while a six-hour battery life is promised, on more than one occasion I came back to the Ambassadors to find they had both been drained down to zero even when they hadn’t been in use for a while. Some work on battery management appears to be in order.
Ultimately the concept is a winner; if some of the practical kinks can be worked out, it’ll be a terrific product. For now, if all parties are willing to take their time, it’s arguably the most effective method around for hurdling the language barrier, short of having a human translator on hand to do the work. And to that, I say kanpai!