Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Translation Software an Aid and Impediment to Understanding Other Cultures, or How Translatey is Translation Software really?

I recently had a short dialog with a man from Brazil using a translation site called "Babylon." I've used translation software before, but never to have a dialog with an actual person. It was an enlightening experience, and one that posed a number of questions. In my last correspondence, I discussed what I thought about the software and it's future repercussions. Here's a piece of that dialog:

This is the first time I've attempted a dialog using this kind of software. I think translation software has improved considerably since I last attempted to use it. In the beginning the results were often comical. I do think that the translation software of the future is going to have to be a lot smarter, not only, as you mention, because of colloquialisms, but phrasing, conventions of speech, grammar, and culture.

Portuguese, as a latin based language probably translates a lot better than Japanese, for instance. I think translation software is not only going to have to translate but interpret, and interpretation is an a little bit of an art. Computer-based translators are going to have to have some form of artificial intelligence behind them to do their jobs more effectively. Maybe they'll use search technology to compare and choose what's going to be the most frequently used and appropriate phrasing. Somehow it's going to have to be more of an open system, and each translation app is going to have its own distinct voice.

Still, no translation is perfect, and the risk is that we all become just a little more lazy about understanding other cultures. If we can put our own cultural "skin," so to speak, on another person's language or culture through either online translation or some kind of real time, on location, augmented reality technology (Google Glasses), we're not only translating but imposing our culture onto the culture of someone else. Words and their use have specific cultural meaning in a cultural context. We don't want to lose that. Understanding enough to communicate on a basic level is not the same as full comprehension, but it can give the illusion that you understand more than you do. Translation of any kind is a expedient, not a solution, an is often as much an impediment to understanding as it is a aid.

But this is still all in the future, when tourists will visit other countries and have real time translations of their discussions and everyone will be able to make their basic needs understood when traveling abroad. Since there's no way (or method in the perceivable future) to fully understand every language we encounter, translation software will aways be a half measure. Still, it's a remarkable gift to be able to have this discussion. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance!

I have no idea how accurate the translation is (I'm pretty sure the punctuation is just a little off, among other things), but if it's anywhere near as accurate as what I've been getting from him, we've been able to make one another understood amazingly well. This software has a lot of potential, but I also fear that translation software and augmented reality technology, may only increase the gap between genuinely understanding another culture. As I described earlier, augmented reality as presented by Google provides a "skin" of information over everything we see, and that skin gives the illusion of understanding. Add translation to this technology and the illusion is even greater. Without it, the gap between this illusion of understanding and the reality is more apparent. With the advancements of translation software, it may be hard to allow ourselves to discard this illusion and learn about other cultures in a genuine way. To understand another culture on a deeper level, we first have to concede to the fact that we have no idea of the true context of the translation.

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