I was recently introduced to the original series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Anybody who knows anything about the franchise knows that there are a lot of wacky inventions and devices to get your head around. One that really interested me was the colourful little Babel Fish. After getting over the initial shock of popping a living thing into your ear, the fantastic creature enables its host to understand any alien language they happen to come across. Now, I thought, that’s something worth inventing…

By Laura Cox

Before I could get my hands on a patent and begin raking in my millions, I came across Google Translate. It’s, simply put, the Babel Fish of the real world, except installation means a visit to the App Store and not a violation of your ear canal. The technology can convert text, translate from images, standardise handwriting and, most excitingly of all, translate real time speech.

It’s main competition is Skype Translator, which translates the spoken word almost immediately. It’s currently available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin, with the promise of more to come. However, the demo video actually shows a misunderstanding – a Spanish to English translation states that instead of ‘Francesca’, ‘Manchester’ is having a baby. It’s fairly amusing, but it doesn’t bode well when the introductory clip straight up acknowledges quite a serious setback. In comparison to Skype’s six chosen tongues, Google Translate supports up to ninety languages on various platforms. That’s nothing short of impressive, and what’s more, it’s free to download.

Business Insider UK gave Google’s project a very positive review, using a Spanish news headline to demonstrate the capabilities of the impressive software. Although the grammar isn’t perfect, it still provides real time translation with an impressive level of coherence. Not sure how to ask for your skinny latte in understandable Italian? Got yourself into a bit of trouble and need to ask for directions to the British embassy? Google has you covered.

So where does this leave us?

On the one hand, I’m really excited about translation technology and it’s power to remove language barriers at the touch of a button. On the other, it’s rather annoying that I sat through four years of French classes just to find out that I may as well have not bothered. Seriously, with the invention of easy and almost-instant translation devices, not-so-proficient language ability is a worry of the past.

Combining translation technology with virtual reality could revolutionise business relationships. (Oculus Rift )
Combining translation technology with virtual reality could revolutionise business relationships. (Oculus Rift )

Of course, it’s not just holiday makers who are going to benefit from this. International business meetings will no longer take hours of human translators and misinterpretation. Team Skype Translator with Virtual Reality and the possibilities are endless. This will prove useful for less corporate organisations, too. For example; you own a small business which sends products to France. You need to liaise with a French company, but all you can tell them is your name and that you have a small brown dog. Not very helpful. But with Google Translate and a VR headset, you can have a sit-down meeting with the company’s CEO and be able to comment on so much more than just the weather.

This might seem very new age and novel, but VR business meetings are already in full swing. Philip Rosedale, the man behind the alternate virtual world ‘Second Life’, is developing a VR headset which uses sensors to track actual movements and facial expressions. In other words, if the French company from the previous example isn’t playing ball, you could tell them exactly how you feel, in French, and even perhaps accompany it with a more universal gesture. The future holds better sensors, a more realistic face-to-face-but-not experience and the integration of translation technology.

If we can communicate via technology, do we need a ‘lingua principa’? Until recently this space was undeniably filled by English, although Mandarin is posing a challenge. Whilst Skype Translator and Google Translate aren’t going to kill off English, they could well remove the need for a global language. What’s the point in taking extensive lessons when your android can do it for you? Toby Ray, teacher and author of ‘Toby In Turkey’, recently relocated to Istanbul. He thinks that technology shouldn’t be a deterrent for learning new languages. But is it really worth the effort?

“Of course it is,” he says, “Cultural differences can be understood better through non-translatable words or idioms. You show other cultures you value them by learning their language, not speaking to them through a machine.” So, Toby thinks that taking on languages helps people see the world in different ways, and as nice as it would be to avoid the time, effort and often money involved in linguistics, he’s probably right.

It’s uncertain how the technology will deal with specifics such as regional accents, but VR avatars and the removal of language barriers can only lead to increased communication and therefore it’s partner, globalisation. We may not have to say goodbye to the predominance of the English language, but we need to accept that advancements in translation technology mean less people will be willing to learn if they don’t have to.

Written by Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a freelance tech journalist working closely with clients in the drone industry.

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