Are Translators an Endangered Species?

Asian companies across the board are making moves to raise the English language abilities of their employees. But, even with the most conscientious students, it can take years to master a foreign tongue, and international business opportunities don’t tend to have that long a shelf life, giving translators a traditionally lucrative niche. But  has Japan found a new solution with real time translation phone services?

n app is launching that will allow Japanese people to speak to foreigners over the phone with both sides speaking their native tongue. The provider, NTT Docomo, can provide Japanese to English, Korean and Mandarin translation at the momemnt, and  is planning to boost its roster of languages in the future. These services are also available from several other leading providers, and even Microsoft is working on its own live translation software.

On the one hand, these devices could save companies huge amounts of money by circumventing the need to bring in expensive translators. It would also mean that sensitive information will only pass between parties involved. On the other, in spite of the phenomenal leaps and bounds being made in electronic translation, are services currently available really a  match for the human brain when it comes to picking up subtle asides or more colloquial speech?

As an experiment on the kind of exchange users of this software can expect to experience, I fed some basic Japanese conversation into a system from a leading tech company. On simple sentences the system proved remarkably accurate, if a little less acute when it came to grammar, but this is hardly a problem over the phone. As someone who has been employed both in  translation and teaching ESL, you can imagine my disappointment at this discovery.

However, when I tried inputting some vague, non-committal language, the system struggled to provide a direct response. This  perked me up a great deal.  Whereas a human would contextualise such language into a response that would make sense to the other party, the system just  doesn’t pick up on small conversational mores, meaning important nuances were lost.  (Japanese is infamous for the amount of expressions you can you use to give a totally non-committal response. Native speakers will be adept at picking up from the speakers inferences what they  really mean, but for rookie Japanese users, this can something of a nightmare).

Small linguistic quirks aside, live translation technology is also being developed outside of Japan. France’s Alcatel-Lucent which is developing a product called WeTalk which will handle around a dozen languages, including French, Arabic, English, and Japanese. It is hoped this product will eventually allow for real time phone conferences to take place where multiple languages are spoken. Although, for the sake of my future earnings, let’s hope it’s not on the market  too soon.


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