DANGER! Don’t get too attached to your online translator

I just finished reading the final story in the sci-fi anthology Future Visions: Original sci-fi inspired by Microsoft, a book about Redmond’s aspirations and how they might unfold in the next decade or two.

The story “Another Word for World,” written by award-winning author Ann Leckie, takes Microsoft’s translation technology and places it in a distant world that looks a little too much like our own. The inhabitants of this planet have issues related to race, with the minority race struggling to maintain their stay under the graces of the majority. It’s not helped by the fact that they don’t understand each other’s language, while the “handhelds” used to translate their discord are about as useful as our Skype translator and Google Translate. real world.

Despite some sketchy translations that almost lead to mortal combat, Leckie concludes his story with a rather far-fetched allusion to Microsoft technology nearly ensuring world peace in a galaxy far, far away.

“These portable translators are a good thing. Can you imagine what the last hundred years would have been like without them? one person said. The character adds that the technology of translation on the polarized planet has avoided all sorts of problems, as if the misunderstanding of languages, those that cannot be learned in a century, were the source of all the dark drama that exists between cultures.

translate it

I told a friend who recently got into a relationship with someone who speaks a foreign language not to trust Bing translate when reading her and her friend’s messages on Facebook. He is handsome may translate plainly, but people rarely say such things, especially in the familiarly wary comment boxes on social media. Unrelated languages, especially when the local language is used, are almost impossible to decipher with Bing. You might as well ask the cat what he said. And that can be problematic when love is at its sometimes uncertain dawn.

I approached her, penetrating her very essencehe wrote…and that was just referring to the iPhone support worker. Any bilingual person will tell you that it’s probably best not to hit Bing to translate when the reason is trying to understand another person’s feelings. Impressive as translators may seem, considering the possible results and resulting reactions, asking the Internet for a meaning could cause confusion at best, and a rift in the marriage bed at worst. There are times when it is better to know nothing than to know a little.

Leckie’s veiled claim that translators could be a reason why entire cultures haven’t been, or won’t be, vaporized is somewhat far-fetched to say the least. Imagine Obama and Putin discussing Syria using Skype’s translation tools. Such a point is extreme, but it must be remembered that online translations have caused millions of little crises, all of which could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, had there been a warning sign above from the translation tab that said: Enter at your own risk; I’m mostly inaccurate.

Language games

As the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, we don’t just speak another language, we are another language. In our language, there are many hidden and ever-changing games, so if you don’t know the rules, that is, if you have a natural fluency, you can’t play the game. The translators are primitive ; they don’t understand the rules of the game. The kind of technology that would be needed to understand the mind-boggling nuances of language is not even a dream, more of a fantasy. We might be a little closer to breaking the language barrier once we solve P vs. NP, but that probably won’t happen. Also, learning languages, rather than clicking tabs, is an important acquisition. Understanding someone else’s rules of the game could help prevent some overall distress while improving awareness of “the other.”

Some think that Google’s statistical translation system, which uses the web to take words and phrases that have already been translated to give you the closest translation, is something that can progress to perfection. Google has also employed translators to perform the laborious task of translating countless phrases. “Thousands of human translators working for the United Nations and the European Union and so on have spent millions of hours producing precisely these matches that Google Translate is now able to select,” said this article in the New York Times who doesn’t know if translation technology is good or bad in terms of efficiency. The point is, it is what it is, very useful when you need the bathroom in Spanish. Prevent war, connect cultures, help you do business in Bangladesh? We might need a million more hours of keypressing people to make that happen; but just as monkeys will probably never write Shakespeare, Google will probably never translate correctly.

The question is, as this author said for the Huffington Post on the problem of translation and why computers will never have pragmatic competence – the ability to understand an intended meaning, “The bottom line is this: computers will never completely solve the problem of translation, and even to make micro-advances towards this audacious goal, they will need significant help from humans. The question is not, ‘Are we going to get there?’ but rather, ‘How far will we go and how fast?’

The be-all and end-all (translate that!) is that until translation technology can work effectively, we should probably leave it alone if we’re trying to socialize or conduct serious business. Presenting technology as “connecting the world” is an illusion of grandeur; perhaps it would be better if it was under the slogan “Confound the world”. And if you believe in language games, there’s a kind of paradox that can also be invoked: the more it connects us – and we give up on learning a language – the less we understand the other person/culture. Its success would lead to cultural homogeneity, and we don’t want that to happen. That being said, technology can be helpful when learning another language.


Pay attention to my patois; it’s sensitive

Using translation technology to buy apples or find the bathroom can work, and it’s good to know that a quick search can provide the answers you need, but translations of common phrases from distant languages have been around for some time. The limitations of translation technology also circumscribe real-time translation, which at its most powerful level could perhaps allow you to spend a minute of a very basic Yes and No game with your Chinese Facebook friend.

Translation technology has provided us with a quick and easy way to find the meaning of some of these phrases when we need it. It’s good at that, and we can congratulate those who made it possible. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of bringing “people from all over the world” together, as Skype will let you know.

The problem with the marketing translation technology that brings us together is that it tries to be something it isn’t: it’s a grand guide to common phrases, not a technology that breaks the language barrier. Bing isn’t magic; it can’t turn slang into a literal meaning and might even be quite offensive when dropped on a benign idiom. Suck it and you’ll see.

When asked to envision a world of future technology after walking through Microsoft’s labs, all Leckie could come up with was Skype translate to another planet. The reason she didn’t bring up something more supernatural was probably because Microsoft doesn’t really have a game plan (language) yet. Can we imagine what the last hundred years would have been like without computer translation tools? The answer is “Yes, we can”. Can we imagine what computer translation tools will be doing in a hundred years? No, we can’t. If, or when, the translations are perfect, will we be more connected? Or will we be just as culturally alienated from each other while still being able to discuss football and Immanuel Kant – without understanding a single word spoken by our interlocutor? This would have been the premise of my Microsoft story.

Photo credit: Kevin Gessner and Chris Radley via Flickr

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