22 July 2022 · Bernadette Cunningham
Throughout history, the greatest issues with cross-country communication, whether it is just two travellers talking, trade deals or meetings between world leaders, are language barriers. The fundamental issue is simple. Given the difference in societal upbringing, humans developed unique languages, and the lack of a common denominator meant solutions were developed quickly and efficiently. In time, industries rose around this; the translation industry exists because of the need to communicate with others. But as we move deeper and deeper into the information age, can technology replace the human aspect of translation?
Within every sci-fi story, there’s always an explanation for why everyone hears the same language, whether it comes from the heroes or an ‘alien.’ The usual excuse is an ‘universal translator,’ a magical McGuffin that excuses the necessity for a live translator. While the value of C-3PO cannot be overstated, both Picard and Kirk got as far as they did because of this forward-thinking solution. While we aren’t at that level in technology compared to fiction, the technology we do have is making radical leaps to close that gap. One such example is the pilot earpiece. Place the two earpieces in, select a language in the companion app, and the device will auto-translate what it hears into your own language. Another new piece of tech is the Timekettle KT12, a pair of earbuds that offer ‘bi-directional’ language translation. Essentially, it can translate a conversation spoken in two languages, both ways.
While this technology is amazing, and the developments required to even construct the foundations of this are astounding, it is important to note that the tech is not sufficient to fully replace the human element of translation, as of yet. The machine translation has the same problems as using software like Google Translate. The one-on-one translation of words can work in simplified usage, but when dealing with dialects, slang or pronunciations, the machine doesn’t know how to properly manage that.
If we take base English as our example, look at a word like ‘weight.’ When written like this, it is clear what I am talking about if you understand English as a written language. However, if I said it aloud as a standalone word, am I talking about how much mass something has, or am I asking you to pause? Without context, a machine would unlikely understand the speed required to respond accordingly. Furthermore, what if my accent makes it difficult to pick out what words I’m saying, or if I’m using a slang term? The possibilities of failure are too many to be unacceptable for now.
However, it doesn’t mean this technology doesn’t have a future or that it can’t be implemented in other areas. For now, though, the nature and industry of professional translation must retain that human element. The degree of failure is too high when using purely machine translation, and the consequences and ramifications could be disruptive to many. For now, these earpieces are more than capable of meeting the needs of the layperson, but if you need professional translation, it is better to go to a professional team.
If you would like to speak to one of our professional translators and see how we can help you, get in touch.