The world is changing daily, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. As technology moves forward, the rate of change is accelerating. The rate of change is staggering, the implications equally so, and frequently enough it feels like we… humans, can’t keep pace. It is useful, however, to look around, to philosophize and speculate a bit. That’s my agenda for today, but with a focus on language.
While a permanent resident of Ukraine, I barely know the most basics for conversing in Russian or Ukrainian. Ukraine has plenty of people fully fluent in Ukrainian and Russian. So, I focus on English. My wife speaks English, Ukrainian and Russian, as do most of my friends. In the United States, the same issues apply to several regions with regards to English and Spanish.
Heated debates have focused on official national languages. Today, I came across some of the new tools under development by Skype and Microsoft – real time speech translation. That’s practically like something out of Star Trek. Early on, we can expect flaws, but projected a few years forward and it will be put to increasingly common, eventually mainstream use.
The implications if this were to work? A rapidly diminishing need for translators and interpreters – an entire “job field” effectively rendered obsolete by software. At the same time that speech recognition and translation is forging ahead, as text already has – text translations will only continue to get better, too.
That takes us back to the Internet.org initiative. That concerns Mark Zuckerberg’s vision on how the Internet can be made more accessible to another 5 Billion people – most of whom are not fluent or even minimally capable of conversing in English or German or Chinese. In a few years, we simply won’t need to be.
Mobile devices will take on the role of translator. This postulates a world where everyone despite speaking different languages can communicate with one another on a progressively easier and better basis. Technology will have the capacity of superseding policies.
I am skeptical of translation technology knowing well that a lot can be lost in the translation. We can commonly find definite and indefinite articles being dropped; inconsistency of past, present and future tenses; or simply the wrong prepositions. It’s too early (still) to expect perfection – especially when the people graduating aren’t all getting straight A’s.
But I also imagine, like Victor Shaburov is doing with Looksery, that as these new technologies are perfected, they will enable more applications and innovations. If we can visually transform our appearance on video, so also will we be able to change our voice…