According to a report by Yahoo Finance, Amazon is "seriously exploring" adding real-time translation to Alexa's suite of capabilities. Google caused a stir when they demonstrated real-time translation via the Pixel Buds. Unfortunately, the efficacy of the translation wasn't quite there. Amazon is looking to make Alexa more useful not just by adding a new feature but adding one that will help tackle language and cultural barriers.
Alexa can already translate short phrases and words in Spanish, German, French and Italian but cannot decipher more meaningful or contextual situations that languages often need. Amazon wants Alexa to be a "true multilingual assistant."
"For instance, if a person from the U.S., who only speaks English, attends a wedding in Tokyo and doesn’t speak Japanese, Alexa would be able to help that person hold a conversation in Japanese. Alexa would have an understanding of the Japanese culture, which is generally more formal and conservative than American culture and would incorporate its knowledge into translations. For example, asking the virtual assistant, 'Alexa, what do I say to the father of the bride at a wedding in Japan?' would solicit a different response and tone from Alexa than if you asked the assistant 'What do I say to the master of ceremonies at a wedding in Japan?' The understanding being that remarks you make to the father of the bride would be more formal and reverential than to the wedding’s master of ceremony."
Anyone who has studied a foreign language for any length of time can attest that it's not always what you say but how you say it. Eastern languages such as Chinese are more tonal such that a simple inflection of the voice can mean the difference between saying something polite or offensive. That's also not including various quirks that languages have such as homophones in English or honorifics in Japanese.
Sources "familiar with the matter" told Yahoo that Amazon has a grand vision of a "Star Trek-like" capability where Alexa can simply respond to virtually any voice command including real-time translation. During an onstage interview, Alexa VP Al Lindsay commented, “To truly realize that vision, you’ll want a number of things: you’ll want to have it everywhere, be able to talk to it from anywhere, be able for it to do all of the things you would want an intelligent assistant do for you, and ultimately do it in a very conversational way.”
In one way, Amazon already has a leg-up when it comes to market share. The Echo accounts for about 68 percent of the market with many companies embedding Alexa right into their devices. The ubiquity alone could drive development of real-time translation.
While the major digital assistants can all do language translation to varying degrees, it's still very early in development and nobody is a clear leader in that aspect. Google could potentially pull ahead considering its artificial intelligence prowess and current capabilities of its Pixel Buds. Still, language translation within cultural and contextual boundaries is very difficult and Amazon is unlikely to roll out such a feature unless it was fully baked.