Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’ve probably heard all about Google’s latest world-changing invention. In their conference on October 4th, Google announced a whole host of new products, with a heavy focus on voice functionality. But quickly galloping into the lead as the most popular, talked about product in the range was the Google earbuds. When paired with the right software and headset, these earphones can provide live translation of spoken language, right into the ear of the listener.

If you’ve ever read or seen Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, this might seem eerily familiar. In fact, it’s only a short hop away from a wire-filled version of the Babel Fish. If you’re not familiar, the Babel Fish is an aquatic creature that extricates simultaneous translations into the host’s ear canal, removing all communications barriers across the universe. Douglas Adams created this astounding creature to directly showcase the impossibility of human technology to create something so ‘mind-bogglingly useful’ that it could not only cope with the raw vocabulary of thousands of languages, but all of the cultural baggage that comes with it. Instead, this could only be achieved by a parasitic alien fish.

The Problem With Technology

 Technology is a wonderful. Diverse and complicated thing. It’s advanced never seem to stop, ad soon every single profession and area of life will be infiltrated by it (if it isn’t already). But that doesn’t make it perfect. Language is such a complex and fluid thing, so full of life, hidden complexities and confusing rules that a set of code often isn’t able to translate one language to another effectively. Sure, it might be able to get the gist, but it can also go hilariously wrong. For example, in an experiment into computer linguistics and translation capability, the phrase ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ was run through a well known translation programme. All it was asked to do was translate it from English into Russian. What it produced looked like Russian, but it actually read ‘The vodka is excellent but the meat is lousy’. Famous computer mistranslations also include a road safety sign that was meant to read ‘Cyclists dismount’ in Welsh, but actually read ‘Bladder disease has returned’, and a sign at a buffet that should have read ‘meatballs’ but instead read ‘Paul is dead’ – because there is no word for meatballs in Arabic.

These problems occur because every language has its own ‘baggage’. The cultural norms, intonations, body language and context can all change the meaning of a specific word. This often means that computer translators can recognise the word, but not the meaning associated with it in context. This is particularly difficulty when working with 2 very different languages. For example, the grammar, syntax and morphology of Asian languages are so completely different to English that translating between the two offers a special set of challenges to human interpreters, let alone a string of computer code.

On that note, lets bow our heads for a moment and spare a thought for the translators working from Asian languages to English at this time. Donald Trump’s incoherent speech patterns are currently driving Japanese interpreters insane. Thanks to the structure of the Japanese language, you can’t even begin to translate the sentence before you know what it means as a whole. When interviewed, a rather shell shocked translator explained that ‘when the logic isn’t clear or a sentence is just left hanging in the air… There’s no way we can explain what he really means.’

And up until recently, computers simply couldn’t handle this level of complexity. But Google assures us that these headphones use their sophisticated translation software to allow users to listen to and even speak foreign languages flawlessly, in real time. They will be launches with 44 languages available initially, with more available to be added later. We can’t wait to see if these earbuds will live up to real world tests and pass complex context issues and become our own Babel Fish, or whether they will become damp squib in the field of technological translations. To find out more about what we think about the Google earbuds, or to start learning how you can become your own Babel Fish, just get in touch with us today.