For non-Japanese speakers, services like Google Translate and NTT DoCoMo Inc.’s phones that provide automated translation by speaking into the devices may have made it easier to communicate while in Japan.
But just how reliable are these automated translations? For instance, do they allow foreigners who don’t speak Japanese to understand complicated subscription plans when they purchase cellphones in Japan?
Maybe not. That is why Rsystem Co., which provides a video-call translation service via iPhones and iPads, believes this a niche market waiting to be tapped.
“Automated translation can handle words and sentences but it is very difficult to have a series of conversations” with someone, said Hironobu Murai, director of Hyogo-based Rsystem, which has been providing telephone translator services for years.
Murai said while the company’s Tel Tell Concierge service is still in its initial stage, it provides more assurance to those who need help with complicated content or conversations.
The service allows users to contact Rsystem’s translators via FaceTime, a video-call function that Apple Inc. provides for its devices, and lets them engage in face-to-face communication. Users can show the FaceTime screen to the person they want to communicate with and have the operator translate the phrases they and the other party want to relay.
He said the service is useful for businesses that deal with foreign customers on a daily basis as well as for consumers who frequently travel abroad. In addition, since the service is offered as an application for Apple’s App Store, it has the potential to expand its customer base worldwide in the future as demand for translation services is borderless.
“The key is to provide human assistance to deal with customers’ needs,” Murai said. While various technologies have revolutionized traditional forms of communication, people, rather than computers, are still required to facilitate many situations, he added.
Tel Tell Concierge currently offers a translation service in four languages: English, Chinese, Korean and sign language. These languages are translated to Japanese and vice versa. For now, the service does not offer any other combinations, such as translation from English to Korean.
At present, the operators can only handle simple conversations, and Rsystem’s employees do not deal with technical matters, for instance those involving medical or legal terminology.
But Murai said his operators are striving to become well-versed on the various topics customers ask for. Since the service is used at some of KDDI Corp.’s au cellphone stores, the operators have studied subscription plans and special terms on cellphones.
The application can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store. Once users register their information, they simply tap twice on the icon, select a language and will be immediately connected to an operator.
The service costs ¥3,000 for 10 minutes, ¥5,200 for 20 minutes and ¥10,500 for 50 minutes. Business users must pay ¥20,000 to register a mobile phone and ¥19,000 for unlimited monthly use. In addition, there is an annual ¥30,000 fee to cover the server cost.
Since its launch in October 2011, the firm has sold the application to around 100 companies, according to Murai.
“Companies aiming to attract inbound customers value the service,” he said. For instance, one major department store has been using Tel Tell Concierge to communicate with customers, installing Wi-Fi connections on all the floors, said Murai.
The idea came from the company’s president, who was seeking to find affordable ways to have a translator when he traveled abroad. Taking advantage of Rsystem’s telephone translation service, the firm came up with the idea of using FaceTime to provide it to customers.
“It costs a lot to hire a translator and take the person on a trip,” said Murai, adding it normally costs about ¥40,000 to ¥50,000 per day to hire a translator.
Even if a translator is hired, he or she likely won’t be needed all day, so Tel Tell Concierge is more convenient. And since the quality of the video image and sound are extremely clear when devices are connected to Wi-Fi, FaceTime is an excellent tool for the service, Murai said.
The service already seems promising, with the business expected to post a profit in the fiscal year through March 31.
Rsystem hopes to add more languages, including Spanish and, since many Brazilian workers live in Japan, demand for Portuguese is also forecast to be high, according to Murai.
In addition, the firm hopes to widen the combinations of languages translated, say English to Chinese, so it can attract more customers in overseas markets, he said.