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Is Translation Tech Really ‘Breaking Language Barriers’?

Translation technology will, and always has, struggled with words and phrases which have no English equivalent or cultural relevance to someone who isn’t from that country. Image Credit:

Translation technology will, and always has, struggled with words and phrases which have no English equivalent or cultural relevance to someone who isn’t from that country. Image Credit:

Until very recently instantaneous translation tools have been confined to Sci-Fi television. Dr Who’s TARDIS can translate any language in the galaxy, and although the tech world hasn’t yet caught up to the Time Lord, it seems that 2016 really is the year of automated translation services.

Skype’s translation tool launched live early this year, joining similar services on Facebook & Instagram. Google are at it too, but translation experts argue that the tools and apps ignore the complexities of translating and interpreting a language.

The apps are backed by big money, but the result is often nonsensical. As we’re awash with more and more translation tools, are we understanding each other’s languages less than ever?

What are the major translations services
Skype’s translation technology is a major breakthrough in the way we talk to each other online. Not only can you talk to someone in another country face to face, you can now both converse in your own languages. Skype offers live voice-to-voice translation for seven languages; English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Skype’s Translator follows hot on the heels of Instagram who introduced a ‘see translation’ option to photographs’ captions earlier this year.

In a similar vein to Instagram’s tech, the Google Translate app can translate text from 103 languages when you’re online, 52 languages when you’re offline. You can also translate 29 languages instantly using your smartphone’s camera. As well as Translate, Google also own Word Lens, an app that allows the user to photograph signs, whilst automatically translating the text on your smartphone.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg says social media’s aim is to ‘bring people together’. As there’s over a billion people using Facebook alone, language barriers are very often a stumbling block. To tackle this issue, Facebook introduced their own translation tool in 2011.

All of these apps, in theory at least, make it possible to visit foreign language websites, read texts and even interact over video chat. It doesn’t stop there though. Also in 2016 Waverly Labs have launched ‘Pilot’, an earpiece that allows users to talk face to face in real time in different languages. The earpiece and app claim to have lifted us into ‘a world without language barriers’.

But is that really the case?

Translation tech can’t improvise
While experts in the tech industry are applauding the Pilot as a massive leap forward for technological innovation, it may be a bit too soon to say they’re completely breaking language barriers.

Translation agencies (as one may expect), are leading the charge in cautioning that the technology is far from foolproof. One such translation company, UK based London Translations in a blog on the Pilot earpiece warns: “Translation technology will, and always has, struggled with words and phrases which have no English equivalent or cultural relevance to someone who isn’t from that country.”

Human interpreters can understand these unique words and translate them properly, where an app would fall short. As long as Pilot and similar tech translation tools lack the ability to find suitable substitutes to unique concepts, they will require support from professional translators to help prevent any translation faux pas.

Translations are still mainly word for word
Google’s Word Lens instantly translate words from signs. Although reviews praise the app’s originality, it is only helpful when deciphering an unfamiliar foreign word. Sentences, longer phrases and paragraphs usually come out nonsensical.

An over reliance on word for word translation is one of the main shortfalls of translation technology. This is because many words can take on more than one meaning, and literally translating a sentence word for word usually results in gibberish. Although Word Lens has been praised for its speed, its inaccuracy could get you into hot water.

Translation apps are not street smart
Another problem with literal translation is that it does not take into account local dialogue, slang and cultural appropriation.

Several big businesses have made this mistake in foreign marketing campaigns, with disastrous (and often hilarious) consequences. HSBC lost an estimated $10 million on an advertising campaign in Asia by running it with a literal translation of the tagline: ‘Assume Nothing’.

The resulting translations, however, was interpreted as: ‘Do Nothing’, a very different message.

They are working on it
Aware of its shortcomings, Facebook and Google are using crowdsourcing to tackle the shortcomings of translation tech. Google’s new app, Crowdsourcing, depends on the users to correct and contribute translations to other apps including Google Translate. Meanwhile, Facebook are working on their street-cred by tackling colloquialism (slang, for the uninitiated) from one language to another using feedback from users.

Although adding this important human element is bound to have positive outcomes, the users themselves may not actually be translation experts. What is beyond question is that tech translation tools represent a huge step forward, but what is clear is that it has a long way to go before becoming completely useful to users.

Don’t give up learning languages just yet
Translation tech in its current state is likely to be of most use to those who are entirely foreign to a language. The apps are useful when reading basic instructions or translating single words.

But as a way of gaining an understanding of another language or having a meaningful conversation, most of these tools are still very rudimentary.

Rather than ‘breaking language barriers’, translation tech is helping us build bridges to other languages and cultures. And they’re more like rickety rope bridges than multi-lane highways. Regardless, it’s access unlike anything we’ve seen before.

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