A lot of people interested in technology (and who isn’t nowadays?) have been intrigued by several new speech translation devices that have been introduced over the past year or two. The purpose behind these devices is to provide immediate language translation in “real time” – in other words, as people are interacting with one another. The design of these devices varies: one developed in Japan translates speech without the need for an Internet or cellular connection and can translate a handful of languages, while another is available through a browser or mobile app and can translate into 60 languages.
While these devices sound intriguing, and they are probably entertaining to experiment with, it’s important to remember that the one thing they all have in common is also their greatest limitation: they are all machine translations. That means that they miss the human intelligence needed to interpret the nuances of language and usage. They also lack the awareness of different cultural norms that is so vital in creating translations that are not only accurate, but sensitive to people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Still, there may be valid uses for these devices. If you’re travelling, for example, and need to engage in only the most basic conversations, having a “real time” machine translation tool might be handy. If you’ve decided to try the newest ethnic restaurant downtown and feel the need to amaze your waiter with a few words in his native tongue, a speech translation device might just work. But if you’re in need of quality translation services, machine translations will always fall short for one very simple reason: translation involves much more than simply finding a similar word in a different language. In fact, high quality translation is much more of an art than a science. So assuming that a database of words will produce an eloquent translation is unrealistic, to say the least.
Just consider word usage, for example. The same word can have a drastically different meaning if used in a different context or when used as a different part of speech (verb vs. noun, for example). And these slight nuances of usage, at least up to this point, cannot be mastered by speech translation devices or any other form of machine translation. Languages are far from stagnant. In fact, they are constantly evolving. Just look at a 20-year-old dictionary for proof of that! From technical terminology to popular jargon, it’s challenging for even the most skilled linguist to keep up-to-date, much less any form of AI (artificial intelligence).
In summary, the only thing that differentiates speech translation devices from any other form of machine translation is the instantaneous nature of the tool – which means these latest techno gadgets can produce immediate embarrassment for the user if they choose the wrong word or usage! Our conclusion is this: no translation can ever compare with that produced by a trained, qualified linguist. And the best way to communicate with people who speak other languages is to simply learn enough of the language to get by on your own. Not only will you benefit from the mental exercise of learning the language, but the people you’re trying to communicate with will undoubtedly appreciate your efforts!