Language barriers are one of the biggest roadblocks to achieving a more inclusive global culture, and are the reason that those fluent in multiple languages are regarded as something akin to magicians. Simply put, storing extensive knowledge of a single language in your head is hard enough, let alone multiples, but real time language translation could mean that no one need venture outside of their native tongue.
Nothing to Unpack
There’s nothing particularly confusing about the concept of real time language translation in that it means exactly what it sounds like. A technology that can listen to a person speaking, and translate for the listener as they go without a significant delay would eliminate the need for translators, and possibly help mitigate tensions in situations where communication is necessary.
It’s an easy ideal to communicate, but it proves a much more complex thing to try and achieve.
The idea of such a real time translator whispering in your ear was first introduced in the book series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy,” where the author described a Babel Fish, a living, leech-like fish that could be placed in one’s ear and it would translate every language in real time. The name is likely a reference to the Tower of Babel, which was the site from which God dispersed man and gave them foreign tongues in The Bible.
Fact Meets Fiction
For decades, this “Babel Fish” was considered a figment of science fiction, but that perception is slowly melting away as artificial intelligence steps in to make futuristic strides. Of course, computers have long been able to translate language via text, but making immediate translations through audio is something else entirely.
A number of tech companies are pursuing real time language translation, but none have quite achieved the immediacy or accuracy that science fiction promised. One of the most well-known versions of this budding technology comes from Google. The tech giant first incorporated a basic version of real-time translation in their Pixel 2 earbuds in 2017, and they have since been working to perfect the technology.
As it stands, real time language translation maxes out at about 40 of the world’s most commonly spoken languages. The technology isn’t all that efficient, and it requires both speakers to direct their voices at a device, which then takes a moment to process the audio and spit out a translation. It’s most useful for quick interactions as opposed to thoughtful conversations, since a lot can still get lost in translation.
In a Perfect World
While the Babel Fish is probably the most well-known iteration of real time language translation in pop fiction, the technology was also incorporated into one of America’s most beloved TV sci-fi shows: Star Trek. On the show, the crew use something called a Universal Translator, which scans brain waves to provide real-time language translations.
The problem with translation expectations created by pop culture references like these is that they work internally, whereas the current technology has to rely upon gathering the audio once it’s already been spoken, which adds a delay to the translation process.
Although technology hasn’t totally solved the language barrier just yet, it’s getting closer than anyone would have imagined possible just 50 years ago, and the 21st century may yet see the creation of a real-life Babel Fish gadget.