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Removing the Human Factor: Could Translation Truly Ever be Automated?


Speculating on the future of translation devices means going beyond mere wishful thinking about which of our favourite translation gadgets from the best science shows we can bring to life. From Google Translate making a wealth of languages available at our fingertips, to Skype facilitating instant translation during our video calls, it is easy to see we are heading down a route of automatic translation.

But in order to have perfect, automatic translation of every single thing we say, there are many factors to consider before this becomes possible, if it will ever be truly possible at all. What kind of factors you ask? Let’s take a look at some of the things we need to think about when dreaming up the ultimate translation device and let you decide: will automated, instantaneous translation or interpretation actually happen?

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Tuning in: English accents

Okay, so maybe we’re copping out by starting with what we already know, but English is a great example here. If you happen to be a native English speaker, good for you. You can probably, for the most part, understand any other native English speaker out there from across the globe, and probably a fair few non-native speakers as well.

The English language learner, on the other hand, has a different story to tell. If a learner is used to hearing American English, for example, and then suddenly encounters a Londoner, or perhaps even more linguistically terrifying, a Brummie, there is a good chance that it will take them at least a little time to adjust to the way they are speaking, or perhaps no time at all, to feel like giving up entirely.

If this is true of a human language learner, then the wealth of English accents out there alone would surely be enough to confuse a translation device, right? The very same words are pronounced in so many different ways depending on where the speaker originates, and even within those same regions there are a glut of dialects with which to do battle. If you’ve never experienced how rapidly dialects can change, we suggest a visit to England, where it can genuinely be a matter of metres before an accent changes entirely. How would a translation device cope with that?

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Flying cows, colloquialisms and idioms

Idioms will always be a sticking point when it comes to accurate translation. Pigs might fly in England, but if you’re in Finland and someone is telling tales, then look up, because you probably have cows overhead. And yes, some idioms do translate fairly well when you get the gist of them, the classic example being there are two sides to every story which most languages have a version of. But to fully understand the gibberish that comes out of another person’s mouth means knowing their idioms. Without that, a listener can still be lost.

And then there are colloquialisms. Those words or phrases used in a familiar setting between people of similar understanding. Failing to understand these leaves you as the outsider, the one that sticks out like a sore thumb. Between idioms and colloquialisms, a translation device truly has its work cut out trying to comprehend exactly what it is we are meaning. It seems an impossible task to understand and translate every single thing perfectly.

Arbitrary bananas

Because humans give meaning to language, who says that meaning has to make the slightest bit of sense to anyone else? Maybe you’ve taken to calling your TV remote control a ‘didge’, or know exactly what someone means when referring to their thingy (...), but the point is, arbitrarily assigning a word to something means that a translation device needs to know the weird and wonderful workings of your brain in order to translate your words accurately.

In effect, a true, universal translation device needs to not only interpret the words we are saying, but more than that, our very thoughts. Which poses another question: if we create the perfect tool to translate what we are thinking, will it spill our inner secrets automatically and not be able to distinguish between what we want to say and what we are thinking to ourselves?

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Other points

Because there are so very many things to consider. Would a universal translator be worn by individuals like a Babelfish, carried like Star Trek’s Universal Translator, or somehow transmitted to us like the T.A.R.D.I.S. does, via psychic connection? What are the safety implications, the health risks of any of these tools? If worn, where? How is it powered? Can you plug in your device anywhere or does it charge with use? Can it be hacked and have languages deliberately corrupted? Can you teach your translator to lie for you, or soften the abruptness of your words?

The truth is, fickle, sometimes-terrible creatures that us humans are, creating the ultimate translation device is going to take some doing. Calling all potential Elon Musks out there: what plans do you have for the future of our translated words?