Monday, January 21, 2008

Prodigy is speaking to the world

Platinum-selling artist Prodigy's album hits stores in March, and could be translated into as many as 1,400 different languages.
Photo: Michael Scott Jones

When Prodigy's next album drops, it could debut in nearly 1,500 different languages without the rapper having to so much as crack a translation dictionary.

The lyrics to "H.N.I.C. Part 2" will be translated using proprietary speech-conversion software developed by Voxonic. The company says the software can deliver Prodigy's lyrics in his own voice, in any spoken language.

"The prospect of having fans understand what I'm saying and repeat it in their language (drew me to) the company," said Prodigy in a phone interview just before he began a jail term for illegal gun possession. "Now, fans will like more than just the beat or the rhythm. They'll understand what I'm saying and relate to it."

So far, one of Prodigy's singles has been converted into Spanish, with negotiations ongoing to translate songs into German, French and Italian. The entire album, scheduled to drop March 9, could be released in any spoken language, from Urdu or Japanese to any of the 11 official languages recognized in South Africa. The music is being released by Voxonic's Vox Music Group in partnership with AAO Music/Reality.

As voice-recognition technology improves, translation tools are being utilized from the internet to war zones -- sometimes with unexpected results. Voxonic has high hopes for its application, both in the entertainment industry and beyond.

Voxonic president and avid rap music fan Arie Deutsch picked Prodigy for the project largely because of the rapper's global appeal. One-half of the platinum-selling duo Mobb Deep, Prodigy boasts a loyal international fan base thanks to the group's performances overseas since 1995.

"Hip-hop is a big genre internationally, but you have people around the world saying the words and not understanding them," said Deutsch. "This will change that."

Here's how the Voxonic translation process works. After translating the lyrics by hand, the text is rerecorded by a professional speaker in the selected language. Proprietary software is used to extract phonemes, or basic sounds, from Prodigy's original recording to create a voice model. The model is then applied to the spoken translation to produce the new lyrics in Prodigy's voice.

"A 10-minute sample is all we need to imprint his voice in Spanish, Italian or any language," said Deutsch.

Voxonic's software is able to convert any bit of recorded text into 1,468 different languages with 99 percent accuracy, according to the company.

Peter Mahoney, vice president and general manager at Nuance, a speech technology company, said he has seen steady improvement in the accuracy of speech software over the last several years.

"Processors are getting faster and scientists are inventing better algorithms," he said. "That allows us to do more sophisticated things that you couldn't do before."

Some musicologists wonder what will get lost in translation.

Mark Katz, professor of music at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, was skeptical about whether the vocally morphed tracks would remain intelligible and authentic.

"What do you do about a song like Kelis' 'Milkshake'?" he asked. "We all know what it means, but how would you convey that in 1,400 languages? You couldn't, and the song wouldn't be the same."

H. Samy Alim, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in global hip-hop culture and sociolinguistics, also doubted the newly minted songs would retain the clever wordplay and innovative rhyme schemes inherent in popular music. Alim admitted he would "love to hear what it sounds like," but said the industry -- already overflowing with multilingual artists -- isn't exactly screaming for Voxonic's product.

"Who wants to hear a poorly translated version of their favorite American song?" he said.

Besides, he laughed, "How do you translate 'fo shizzle' in a way that retains its creativity and humor for a global audience?"

Prodigy said hearing his automated self rapping in another language was a surreal experience: "It's definitely weird. But this is going to be world-changing, and it sounds incredible."

Other applications for the technology include movie dubbing and political speeches, but Deutsch is wagering on massive international crossover appeal in the music industry. And so is Prodigy, who was recently brought on as a partner at Vox Music Group.

"I can't wait to hear myself rap in Arabic," he said.

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