“The Babel Fish is small, yellow and
leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on
brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It
absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to
nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic
matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals
picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The
practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you
can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978, it was a
brilliant work of comedy science fiction, but his creation of the Babel Fish to
allow Vogons and Betelgeusians and Humans to have clear coherent conversations
was actually a glance into the future.

we don’t quite have a creature that we slide into our ear that excretes a
telepathic matrix, but the world of translation technology is changing rapidly.

years ago, I was sitting in a taxi in Japan and was introduced to an app by the
taxi driver. He used a phone with an app called SayHi that he used to take
directions from clients. I was immediately hooked and downloaded the app. It
covers ninety languages and dialects (and here I was thinking there were only
about 25 major world languages) and allows you to speak into your phone and
utilise voice to text to print your words on screen in your language while
translating – both in writing and verbally – to a language of your choice. The
person you are speaking to then does the same in their language. It is not a
perfect flowing conversation – but definitely better than fiddling through
phrase books and struggling to recall those language lessons from high school.

is only one app though. As the power of phones and computers continues to
increase dramatically and speech to text engines are constantly refined, the
results are going to continue to improve.

is an area we are going to see a lot of movement in. The human translation and
interpreting industry generates $37 billion a year at the moment and I can see
many organisations wanting a piece of that pie with their technology. There are
three main areas that are being worked on as we speak.

there are organisations dedicating themselves to live real-time translations
for conferences and speeches. Something like you see at the United Nations when
all the delegates wear headphones to hear the speech that is being delivered in
their native tongue. At the moment, the UN relies on human translators but this
is an area that has huge potential. The communication is mostly one-way and a
small delay in the translation does not create any major problems. When I have
been involved with human translators in the past, I always wonder if they
translate exactly what you say. A twenty second segment of speech sometimes
turns into three seconds of translated talk. Given the fact that I have no idea
what the translator has said, they may have just said “that bit was boring” or
worse. “He tried to be funny – laugh at his big nose.” Machine translation
takes away any possibility of bias introduced by the translator – but also
introduces the possibility of a misinterpretation by not picking up on nuances
or ambiguity.

second area is in written translations. This is an area that we often find
amusing when we read the instructions that come with products manufactured in
other countries. I once saw some noodles that proudly stated that “Our food is
guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.” I can only assume they wanted to say the food
was safe for pregnant women. Some of these interpretations are mildly amusing
but when it comes to legal contracts or more detailed instructions,
misinterpretations can mean loss of money or even loss of life. The
organisation that can produce high-quality text translations that are accurate
will take over this space. One trick I find amusing is to write a paragraph of
normal English and use a tool to translate it into a foreign language and then
use a different tool to translate it back into English. Then compare what you
see to the original text. My favourite fail is the Restaurant in China that has
their name in Chinese and beside it, in letters almost a metre high, is the
English equivalent of their restaurant name. There was obviously a problem with
the translation tool they used because the restaurant’s name is “Translate
server error.”

third area that is expanding rapidly is the social translation market. There
are new apps almost every day that allow the traveller to explore countries
never before considered. One company recently released a set of earpieces that
allows two people to communicate back and forth in different languages in the
best interpretation of the Babel Fish yet. It does have the limitation that
only those two can be in a conversation but it is a first step. There are a
huge number of apps available – such as Google Translate; iTranslate; Voice
Translator; iHandy Translator; Worldictionary and the list goes on. If you are
travelling overseas, do a quick search and experiment with some of these. You
will be surprised at just how good they are.

have certainly come a long way since 2009. I was in Paris in April that year
when swine flu hit the world. On the morning I had to fly out, I woke up with a
temperature and airports were being very conservative in allowing people to
fly, so I had to see a doctor. With no ability to communicate with the French
doctor, I pulled out my computer and went to an early version of Google
Translate. I typed in that I needed to be cleared of swine flu so I could fly
later that day. He looked at my translation – and then at me – and typed in a
message that was translated back and asked me to remove my shoe so he could
examine my toe!

Mathew Dickerson

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