Universal language translation: thx, Google

Google is working on improving translation to the point where we have a universal language translator. In the Smithsonian Magazine, Kissing Language Barriers Goodbye:

“One thing that surprises people when we talk about Translate is our team doesn’t have any linguists on it,” Estelle says. “We’ve launched 71 languages, and I would say our team doesn’t know how to speak the vast majority of them. A human translator is not going to be able to learn all these terms and things as fast as our [data] can learn from the web.”

And with the recent release of their Pixel Buds, Google is trying to produce the sci-fi level real-time language translator. From Engadget’s article Google’s Pixel Buds translation will change the world:

Google packed its headphones with the power to translate between 40 languages, literally in real-time. The company has finally done what science fiction and countless Kickstarters have been promising us, but failing to deliver on, for years. This technology could fundamentally change how we communicate across the global community.

Real-time translation can do a lot for breaking down barriers. Engadget continues with the praise:

You’ll be able to walk up to nearly anybody in another country and be able to hold a fluid, natural language conversation without the need for pantomime and large hand gestures, or worry of offending with a mispronunciation. International commerce and communication could become as mundane as making a local phone call.

Universal translation might not be universally good, however. The Smithsonian Magazine article continues:

She thinks the device could be somewhat useful with travel, business and international relations but not groundbreaking. At a certain level, we already have translators (people) in place, and most who work in foreign relations know the appropriate languages. A device, Murphy believes, could have negative consequences.

“I think it can make people lazy,” Murphy says. Translating languages can be mentally challenging by forcing the brain—especially one that knows more than two languages—to work in a different way, but the exercise is rewarding, nonetheless. The brain pulls from a place of linguistic empathy that even the finest voice translator could never reach.

While this universal communication could be a positive, Murphy acknowledges, “it might lead to people thinking they’re communicating when they’re not.” Culture is not always completely embodied in language (take sarcasm, for example), and communication is not always about the information being passed.

Translation is the “key” to unlocking a “truly global” web, but this sort of translation could also lead people to think they’re communicating when they’re not (to paraphrase the article). If you think you’re communicating with someone, but you’re talking past each other in a series of miscommunications, the UX of your world is off, so to speak. This happens in same-language communication as well. With the additional layer of auto-translation interference, it might be easier or harder to detect when such miscommunications happen.