Babel Fish

Posted by Flux on 

28 May 2013


“… if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything in any form of language.”  – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

What’s trending now?

The role of the Babel fish in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is to explain away language barriers across the universe.  And now, the concept is no longer lodged in science fiction.  Fortunately, people do not need to wedge a small, yellow fish into their ears to benefit from almost instantaneous interpretation.  The evolution of technology only requires a handheld device – and just about everyone has one in their pocket.  These days, a Babel fish is just another word for your phone.

Why it’s important

Previously, holding a conversation with someone in another language required the help of an interpreter.  At the very least, multilingual phone calls were difficult; more often than not, they were complicated, lengthy and expensive endeavours.  For these reasons, interpretation software has been in the works for years.

Now, users can download an app for their cell phone enabling interpretation between preset languages.  When someone speaks, a voice recognition application converts spoken words into text.  From there, it is translated into the other language, and then read aloud with voice replication software.  And, with computer speeds increasing daily, this means the process is almost instant.  Gone are the days of waiting for the interpreter as the go-between.  If an English speaker calls a Mandarin colleague in China, they can converse in almost real time.

Instant written translation software has been available for years – through a variety of mediums.  Early online platforms included Babylon (otherwise known as Babelfish), and today, Google’s translate program has become almost ubiquitous for people living in multilingual societies.  In addition, voice recognition and voice replication software has been available on the market since the release of the first Apple home computer.  All developers needed to turn translation into verbal interpretation was the prevalence of cloud data storage.  Now that all the pieces are in place, the Babel fish is ready to change the world.

What’s the butterfly effect

The immediate practical effects are obvious.  You can now book your hotel in Rome, or chat with a researcher in Madrid with remarkably little effort.  Taking the software forward, international conferences, such as meetings of the United Nations, will no longer feature interpreters hidden in back rooms.  Computers will facilitate the words heard through headsets.

However, there are potential negative spin offs.  Words are not the only way people communicate verbally with each other.  There is a heavy emphasis on intonation and volume.  In addition, many cultures prefer a skilful turn of phrase which cannot be directly translated; just think of the Japanese or South Africa’s Cape Coloured community.  And without proper diction, it can be exceptionally easy to offend.  This could mean more than short term embarrassment.  According to the imaginings of Douglas Adams, “the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

The pioneers

NTT Docomo, Japan’s largest mobile network, is at the forefront of the trend.  They have already released a free application for their subscribers.  Their platform supports computer interpretation between 10 languages, including Japanese, English, Mandarin, French, Portuguese, and Korean.

The French phone company, Alcatel Lucent is hot on Japan’s heels as they continue developing a program that will even work over landlines.

The global hot spots?

Japan is at the forefront of the movement, driven by their international business ethics.  However, it is likely that Europe will be the first to latch on to widespread implementation.  With 11 official languages and a host of international expats, South Africans should hope it catches on soon.

By: Katie Schenk

About Katie

Katie is South African by choice, but she’s proud of being American too.  She’s a writer, a producer, and a momma.  If she can shut off – she sleeps.  Her interests include advertising, home economics, entrepreneurial processes, South African idiosyncrasies, and rugby.   (Really.)  She’s also a fan of Tudor history – but there’s nothing trendy (or trending) in that.

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