Tech gets more language-friendly – but it's still no match for real people

Global Trends, Technology, Translation & Localization14 January 20154.1k

Communicating with people in other countries is becoming an increasingly important part of our everyday lives, whether it's for business purposes or simply to enjoy an interaction on social media for fun.

With this in mind, a number of technology firms have recently been coming up with new ways to help out when it comes to talking to colleagues or friends in other languages.

For example, Android smartphone users can now make the most of the Minuum Keyboard, which allows people to type in languages including French, Dutch and Italian without trying to autocorrect it into the device's default language setting.

This could be handy for businesspeople who already know how to talk and write in that particular tongue, but need to switch between it and others in the workplace.

Perhaps even more excitingly, Skype has recently been showing off a new tool that will allow automated, near-simultaneous translation of video calls. Participants just talk as they would normally (albeit a little more slowly) and the software converts their words, as well as providing a written transcript.

At the moment, the tool is only available for Spanish to English and vice versa, but there are plans to expand it to more languages in future.

However, while the idea of making tech more language-friendly is admirable, the realities of using it could actually be quite different – and perhaps even problematic, particularly for those trying to do business across borders.

A big issue with voice recognition-reliant applications is the accurate recognition of people's voices. It is already difficult for computers to interpret some of the sounds we make as the correct words, so misinterpreting them and consequently translating the wrong thing may result in real gaffes.

Another factor is that human beings constantly make decisions about how to interpret and say words and phrases when they are having conversations, usually without even realising they are doing so – for instance, what order to put words in within a sentence. They also make decisions about the types of phrases they use, for instance, colloquialisms.

Machines are unable to do this and so some of the nuances of particular tongues will be lost or end up jumbled. There are already numerous examples of language-related gaffes online committed by people, so it's fair to say that incidences of these would go up if we relied on technology.

For example, spirit in English can mean a drink or a ghost, while 'kalimera' (good morning in Greek) may easily be misinterpreted as 'calamari' (the seafood). Mispronouncing 'je suis plein' (I am full in French) as 'je suis pleine' informs everyone in earshot that you are pregnant.

And what about the differences within one language spoken in different regions? Arabic is famously complex depending on where in the world it is heard and the Egyptian version is very different to the Iraqi version. Even speaking classical Arabic will sound stilted to most natives.

Finally, there's the point that even people talking in their mother tongue usually don't always speak grammatically correctly. Two good examples of this in English are 'he was sat' instead of 'he was sitting' and 'should of' rather than the correct 'should have'. How would a machine manage to overcome these types of mistakes to determine what the speaker meant?

Perhaps technology might one day have developed to the extent that it is able to instantly translate our words into an array of other tongues, but we're clearly not there yet and it's therefore a mistake to rely on these new apps and programs too heavily, especially for business purposes.

It could result in some confusing conversations at best and even causing offence at worst, which isn't the best way to win new clients over.

Instead, always seek out the human touch and native speakers when you've got anything to translate, whether it's documents and manuals or videos for YouTube. This may not be instant, but at least you'll know it's reliable!

We have panels of expert linguists here at EQHO who can help out with your every translation and localization need, so do get in touch to learn more about what we do. 

Posted by Real human beings trump translation technology for now.


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