Three ways translation technology is making sci-fi real

science fiction

We’ve already talked about about why machine translations aren’t reliable enough to replace us humans. But good professional translators know that translation technology isn’t the enemy—it’s actually an asset to us. It handles the grunt work in big swaths of text and frees us up to wrestle with juicier issues, like why there isn’t a more satisfying Spanish translation for “fancy.”

So new advances in language technology are good news for translators, the companies who hire them, and sci-fi geeks alike. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a world of futuristic translation gadgets, read on to see how that world might be closer than you think.

Neural Machine Translation

The latest thing in machine translation is NMT: Neural Machine Translation. Until recently, the dominant model for translation technology has been SMT, Statistical Machine Translation. SMT works by deducing from a large databank what the most likely counterpart is for a source phrase. This is quite a useful model, yet like all robot builders, machine translation researchers are continually striving to create artificial intelligence—a machine that can think like a person does. The AI apocalypse isn’t upon us yet, but NMT is a step closer. NMT systems look at each sentence as a whole rather than a string of words, and they adapt and learn from vast databases of sample text.

machine translator

VeraContent doesn’t look like this yet.

These features allow them to have a little more common sense about translations. For example, NMT programs are able to produce equivalent-meaning translations of idioms, where an SMT system would just spit out a bewildering word-for-word translation. So a non-English speaker could get the drift that a story you heard “through the grapevine” came to you as a rumor and not in a vineyard. Google Translate adopted this technology last year, and it improves accuracy far beyond just figures of speech.

NMT was put to the test in a very unconventional tournament held in Seoul on February 21. Four professional human translators faced off against NMT programs from Google, South Korea’s Naver Inc., and Systran International, a translation tech company. The competitors translated a series of articles from Korean to English and vice versa. When judges tallied the scores, the humans averaged 25 out of 30 points for accuracy, while no machine broke 15. So those of us who trade in language don’t need to worry just yet. Still, the progress is impressive.

Instant interpreter earpieces

From Star Trek to Douglas Adams, many a sci-fi hero has enjoyed a device that lets them chat naturally with alien interlocutors. Present-day earthlings are only meeting other humans, but we still sometimes suffer language barriers that we’d like an instant fix for. So you may have heard buzz about Waverly Lab’s real-time interpretation earpiece.

This little earpiece, the Pilot, isn’t actually a different fundamental technology than machine translation. It works by linking with the company’s text translation app, and thus is of course at risk of the same inaccuracy. But eliminating the smartphone screen as a clunky middleman lets people communicate more naturally. Plus, it’s just plain cool to have a robot dubbing the world in front of you. The video on the gadget’s Indiegogo page certainly makes you want to get one and play with it. It shows the company’s English-speaking boss and a French-speaking woman smiling with wonder as their need for hand gestures and guessing suddenly falls away.

translation earpiece

Your key to the world could be even smaller   than this.

The earpiece comes in pairs so you can let your conversation partner borrow one, which is smart, since understanding someone doesn’t do much good if you aren’t able to respond. You can preorder the Pilot for $249; not exorbitant for a serious world traveler, but not quite cheap enough to have every man, woman and child linked up to the Tower of Babel. But if Waverly Lab’s earpiece is successful, competitors will no doubt be working around the clock to catch up. That means the market could be in the buyer’s favor before we know it. And if you want to sound extra-savvy about it at your next dinner party, don’t let the headlines about “translation earpieces” confuse you. Pros would call the Pilot a machine interpreter, since it works with spoken language rather than written text.

The Rosetta Project

But what if the robots do take over, ultimately fail to maintain society, and plunge our whole history into obscurity? How will the life forms that inherit Earth decode our writings if most of our languages have gone out of use?

That’s the issue being tackled by The Rosetta Project, the brainchild of the Long Now Foundation for forward thinking. Actually, the linguists on the team aren’t just worried about a far-off total extinction scenario. Lesser-known languages are falling out of use even as we speak. The Rosetta Project bases its concept on the Rosetta Stone, the famous Egyptian artifact engraved with the same text in Greek, an Egyptian print called demotic, and hieroglyphs. Because the people who found it understood Greek, they were able to compare the versions and finally comprehend the hieroglyphic system.

rosetta stone

The Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Project is setting out to create a similar artifact, but with the benefits of intentionality and modern technology. They have created the Rosetta Disk, “a three-inch diameter nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface.” The project members believe that while computers might one day be obsolete, most cultures find their way to some sort of microscope. Thus if they found the durable, decay-resistant disk, they would likely notice its markings and get a closer look. When they did, they’d discover the key to more than 1,000 languages.

This powerful archive will also be available to those of us living in the present. The full linguistic record will be available online and in book form. Or, if you’re a fashion-forward language geek with $1,000 to spare, you can have a necklace with a reduced-size Rosetta Disk inside. We recommend being buried with it, for the chance that your skeleton could lead archaeologists to all of human knowledge. They might even name it after you.

Nothing beats the usefulness and versatility of learning a new language. But few of us have time to master even one, let alone the full gamut of human speech. In our global world, everyone at some point finds themselves in a situation where a precocious robot could really help them out. And for those of us who trade in multilingual content, advances in linguistic technology make our work smoother, better, and less of a headache all around. Keep your eyes peeled for new gadgets on the market—you might be amazed what they come up with next.

The future of translation is right around the corner. But the assurance of a translation service offered by a dedicated team of transcreation experts is hard to beat for now. VeraContent will be here for all your multilingual content needs in the present and the future.

Tova Seltzer
A lifelong writer, poet, and seeker of just the right words, Tova is excited to be spending time abroad immersed in Spanish, although she misses the breakfast scene back in Washington, D.C.
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