For anyone who has lugged an old-fashioned phrasebook around Europe or had an entire conversation using only inventive hand movements and nods to communicate, it may be high time to pause for a moment or two to reflect on the state of translation technology.
Today's basic electronic translators offer access to key phrases in countless languages, and they speak for you, kind of. You have to search for the phrase you need first, flipping through a few menu screens, but once you find the proper way to ask for your check at a restaurant, for instance, you select it and the palm-sized electronic translator will play a recording of that phrase to the waiter in their language. You can have all of that for about $200.
Many software developers still aspire much higher, though. An accurate real-time electronic translator – picture the Universal Translator on Star Trek – still seems just out of reach, however. For the non-nerds: the Universal Translator was able to translate alien languages instantly. There was no need for anyone to translate because Spock, or anyone else holding this extra special electronic translator, could hear the other side of the conversation in English and the alien in question would hear the conversation in their native tongue.
Notwithstanding important advances, there is still no real-life Universal Translator, no way for an electronic translator to interpret a live conversation instantly.
Some of the translation software on the market is pretty impressive, and there are many online translators, of course, but neither of these is exactly the same as instant translation, what with all the cutting and pasting. They are not the always accurate, either. Once you take a phrase from a language you know and convert it back and forth a couple of times you will see the limitations. A sentence from this article, "Many scientists still aspire much higher, though," was converted by one online translator to "Molti scienziati aspirano tuttavia molto più alto, nonostante," in Italian, which translates back into English as, "A lot of scientists inhale nevertheless a lot higher, although."
Naturally, military units around the world have a keen interest in an advanced electronic translator. One application, V Communicator Mobile, is helping translate phrases like, "do you have any weapons?" for those on the battlefronts who do not have access to a human translator. However, everyone still wants a human translator, or at the very least an amazing electronic translator. Due to budget constraints, the V Communicator Mobile application provides only a few soldiers with some basics.
Even though instant translation technology is limited, there is progress in some areas. There are demos online of a Microsoft technology referred to as the translating telephone, which combines speech recognition with automatic translation. One demonstrator speaking English and one speaking German made phone calls over the internet. The computer converted their speech into text first, then translated it and then read it aloud to the other person in their own language. The translations were not perfect but they are understandable. Demonstrators said the computer has a hard time adapting to stuttering, repetition and pauses in speech. There are other difficulties as well, but the demonstration got a lot of attention. It was, perhaps, one of the best attempts so far at real-time translations.
Even though there is no real Universal Translator yet, we can get pretty far with increased understanding using the electronic translators on the market today. The future is wide open for more technology in the future.