New York-based company Waverly Labs have announced their new invention: The Pilot – the world’s first translation earpiece that translates conversations between people speaking different languages in real time. The company is planning to release versions for English, Spanish, French and Italian, while versions for East Asian, Hindi, Semitic, Arabic, Slavic and African languages will be available in the future. The device is now available for pre-sale but there isn’t a release date. In fact, there isn’t much information about the product on their website either.
Could this device be the real Babel Fish; the machine translation device in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? When placed in the ear, this small yellow fish allows the person to instantly understand anything said in any form of language. Is this just the stuff of science fiction, or can we really overcome the immense problems posed by machine translation?
We only need to use the free online translation websites such as Google translate or Yahoo! Babel Fish to see that machine translation is still in its infancy. There’s a joke doing the rounds of the internet that someone took the Biblical phrase, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41) and used a free translator to translate it from English to Russian. When the same phrase was translated back from Russian to English it read, “The vodka is great, but the steak is bloody awful!”
When we use machine translation a lot is lost in translation. Here are just a few of the problems it faces.
Idioms. Idioms are metaphorical phrases such as on the house and at the drop of a hat. When idioms are translated literally into other languages they don’t make any sense. This problem is illustrated nicely in the Darmok episode of Star Trek in which the universal translator is used to translate the language of the Tamarin race. However, the language is based on metaphor from Tamarin folklore and it is completely obscure when translated directly into English.
Culture-specific words. Languages have cultural words for foods, objects, values and emotions for which there is no exact equivalent in other languages. If there’s no direct equivalent then translating a single word into another language may take many words in the target language, if the concept can be explained at all.
Ambiguity. Many common words have multiple meanings or senses (this is called polysemy in linguistics). For example, if someone says kind, are they talking about a “type” of something, or are they saying that someone is “good” in some way? Then there are unrelated words that sound the same (homophones). Are we talking about a pair as in two of something, or the fruit called a pear? We can ascertain the meaning of a word by its context, but machine translation isn’t always capable of differentiating meaning.
This was the case back in 2011 when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao made a high-profile visit to Malaysia.
There was a welcoming ceremony with a banner message written in Chinese and Malaysian. The Malaysian text said, “Official welcoming ceremony in conjunction with official visit of His Excellency Wen Jiabao to Malaysia.” However, the Chinese text read, “Official welcoming ceremony, with him Wen Jiabao His Excellency’s official visit Malaysia.”
It was later revealed that the Malay sentence was translated into Chinese using Google translate…
Of course, the above translation issues apply to human translation as well.
We need only look at a website such as Engrish to see that human translation can be a challenge too…