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Twitter tests Bing translation on Android

As Twitter spreads globally, it makes sense to be able to break down language barriers. But machine translation is hard -- especially in the abbreviated lingo of a tweet.

Blogger Arvid Bux spotted an apparent test of Bing Translate in his Twitter Android app.
Arvid Bux

Twitter uses Microsoft's Bing translation service to transform tweets on its website and its Windows Phone application. Now it's begun trying the service out on the official Twitter app for Android, Google's mobile operating system, too.

Blogger and technophile Arvid Bux noticed the feature last week, as seen on the image at right, when he saw below one tweet were the words "translated from Dutch by Bing" and an English-language version of the tweet.

The translation appeared only when a single tweet was opened, Bux said, a behavior that matches Twitter for the Web and Microsoft's Windows Phone mobile OS. The feature appears to be unusual, though, indicating that it's likely one of Twitter's experiments.

"It's rare for a day to go by when we're not releasing at least one experiment...You may see some features that your friend doesn't see, or vice versa," Twitter said in December of its experiment program, which lets its servers deliver different content to the same mobile apps. It won't be a surprise to see translation popping up on Twitter's iPhone app, too.

Twitter declined to comment for this story. But the move makes sense: it already offers Bing translations on other operating systems, and translation is a big deal as Twitter grows internationally.

The biggest part of the company's user base still is in the United States, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in a CNBC interview Wednesday, but the company is expanding in other countries. With users following high-profile people such as celebrities, politicians, and athletes who aren't necessarily in the same country, it makes sense to cater break down language barriers.

Take the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil in June, one of the most international events there is, for example. Perhaps an Italian wants to know what that Nigerian footballer just tweeted. Google isn't the only company that stands to benefit from making the world's information universally accessible.

The Twitter app for Windows Phone 8 already offers Bing translation.
Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Facebook also offers translation services. And more ambitiously, Microsoft is working on real-time translation of voice communication in Skype.

It's not clear what kind of partnership Twitter has with Microsoft or whether Twitter is considering other alternatives such as Google Translate. As the feature is implemented now, though, Microsoft gets significant promotional value for its online Bing services. (As seen on the image at right, the Twitter app for Windows Phone 8 already offers Bing translation.)

Machine translation, although useful for those wrestling with language barriers, still often shows its shortcomings compared to expert human translations. Translating tweets is an even tougher challenge, though: With 140 characters, computer translation algorithms have to wrestle with obscure acronyms, abbreviations, Twitter lingo, and words jammed together into hashtags.

So perhaps it's not a surprise that Bux griped on Google+, "Can't find a setting to deactivate this. Shame," and that there's a Chrome extension for disabling Bing translations on the Web version of Twitter.