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The Tower of Babel, Translation, and Earpiece Technology

The year is some indeterminate point in the future.

Gone are our pocket guides teaching us standard phrases to use when we travel abroad. Disappeared are the dual-language signs in restaurants and bars the length and breadth of the world over, that previous have caused us everything from amusement to hilarity with their attempts at translation. We all simply have a device fitted in our heads that translates any language we hear automatically, so much so that the need for learning foreign languages – and therefore translation is well and truly gone.

We have seen the future and it is, depressingly, almost monolingual.

Now, language learner, in light of Waverly Labs new invention, whose pilot is set to be released , we didn’t fall asleep reading Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or watching Doctor Who again. The future is now and, while it is beautiful, things are changing. Fast.

For those of us struggling to learn a language and feeling like giving up, we might rejoice at the thought of no more verb conjugation, and never having to consider a grammar rule again. But thinking about losing languages, and therefore translation skills, actually makes us a little sad.

Currently, Google translates more words in one minute than the average human translator will do in one year. With demand for translation becoming more and more impatient, a huge range of automatic translation tools are available for a fraction of the price and time that a human translator can offer.

But does this mean translation services will eventually become obsolete?


Photo via Flickr

If you’ve never experienced a Google or Bing translation fail for yourself, we are certain that you have heard of such horror stories from other people. If Auto Correct is archangel Gabriel and is there purely to cause you a little mischief, then some automated translation services are surely Lucifer himself.

A slight mistranslation might be funny between friends, or even be the spark of a newfound friendship. But it is an entirely different ballgame when it comes to all things business, legal, or medical: can you imagine relying on a quick internet translation of a legally binding document or an emergency situation and having to literally live with the consequences?

Machine Translation

This automatic translation by a machine between one language and another has come a long way. In 1954, one of the forefathers of the PC, the IBM 701, was able to translate an impressive 49 sentences on chemistry from Russian to English. Now this computer may have taken up two rooms at IBM’s New York headquarters in order to complete this task, but it was the first step on the automatic translation ladder.

The first online machine, or automatic translation went live in 1992, with Compuserve offering its forum users translations between English and German.

Babelfish, launched as AltaVista back in 1997, was a huge turning point for automatic translation, offering translations between English, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian.

Today, Google accepts voice input in 15 languages and can translate more than 50 languages.

Skynet has become self-aware…

Photo via YouTube

Except it hasn’t. There is no need to panic just yet.

True: many social media sites, and most browsers, do offer you automatic translation of whatever it is that you wish to say, or read. But you only have to try and translate something that is, shall we say, more colloquial, and you will soon realize that such automated translation is merely a guide, and not a full solution.

So what does the future hold for translation?

There are a few theories about what will happen to the translation industry. They are mostly positive: no linguist will truly see – or accept – that a professional, human translation will ever be replaced with any kind of accuracy by a simple internet tool.

Here are some of our favorite theories about the future of translation.

The proof is in the pudding…

… or in the case of mechanical translation (MT), high-quality translation involving interaction with an actual human will gain higher recognition among those looking for such translation services.

Those seeking translation of documents might turn to tools such as Google Translate for the odd word, but any good business knows the importance of solid, factually accurate work. Step in the translator, who can tell when a document has had the MT treatment, and once they have finished guffawing at the mistakes, will calmly take over and do what a machine cannot. Translators may even find a niche market in correcting MT fails: surely the value of the translator will skyrocket.

Supply and demand…

… the translation sector has a vast amount of ‘middle men’ to go through to get the job done. You have your translator and end-user, but buffering between them are translation agencies, global multilingual vendors, corporate translation departments, external quality reviewers – the list could go on.

With technological advances and more and more of us working solely online, think of the corners that could be cut without diluting the end product. Businesses will be able to reduce their costs by hiring professional freelance translators, and as processes are streamlined and simplified, those who have the right skill set will thrive where others cannot.

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Bilingual business?

Photo via Pixabay

As the wealth of languages in which we do business expands, and previously unknown markets are tapped into, there is going to be a surge in the need for language expertise that previously we may not have considered. The ‘democratization’ of globalization will therefore produce more translation jobs; why stick to ‘standard’ Spanish and French for your translation skill set when you could specialize in Farsi and Cantonese, for example? The world is truly your oyster!

Embracing change…

Whilst MT is here to stay, actual translators have their work cut out for them in terms of continually helping to improve the quality of such automatic translation. As an example, think about promoting a new product in another country. Checking for things like correct, or non-offensive product names in different languages and taking into consideration different cultures is not a skill that can be done purely by clicking on a keyboard.

A human translator has something that a computer will never have: instinct for what it is to be human. In essence, human translators will navigate language traps, whereas MT software might fall straight into them: and a human translator will always be there to pick up the pieces of that fall.

So: Will human translation go obsolete?

The short answer is no. Like any industry, the translation industry must adapt and change, embrace tools such as MT instead of viewing them as the enemy and find niches in markets that translators may not have considered previously. In short, translation will always be needed: translators will just have to become more adaptable.