In-ear translation technology is becoming more advanced. Will this eventually lead to the extinction of language professionals such as translators and interpreters?
There’s a scene in one of the Mission: Impossible films where Benji (Simon Pegg) and Ethan (Tom Cruise) are cornering a villain. The two heroes, of course, are in disguise. Once the villain has fallen for Ethan’s and Benji’s trap, the two protagonists do their signature rip-off of their face masks to reveal their true identities. And Ethan pulls off his voice tape.
Yes, a voice tape.
What on earth is a voice tape?
The voice changer in the film is a small piece of technology that sticks to the person’s throat and changes the speakers voice to whoever’s voice they’d like to mimic. Once the agent dons a mask and tapes the voice changer over their larynx, their impersonation of the targeted victim is near foolproof. In Ethan’s case, he only needed a voice change. But what about being able to talk in one language and have a piece of technology translate what you’re saying into the listener’s native language in real-time?
Tech start-ups have recently invented ear buds and an app that work in concert to spontaneously translate what you’re saying in your mother tongue to the listener’s native language.
Companies such as Waverly Labs and Timekettle have recently introduced their translation earbuds to the market. The translation earbuds work by having each person wear one earbud. Then, the source and target languages are pre-selected on the app downloaded to your phone. When one person starts to speak in their native tongue, the ear buds will detect the speaker’s bioacoustics in order to recreate their voice. The listener will not only hear the translated message in their native language, but they will also hear the speaker’s voice as if they were truly speaking in the target language. The result is a more natural sounding, spontaneous conversation.
Great! Translators won’t be needed anymore. This means I can save money by using tech instead of hiring trained interpreters!
First off, let’s clarify the difference between translation and interpretation. Translation refers to written translation, while interpretation refers to oral translation.
Training for translation and interpretation can overlap, but each profession requires different skills and they each face their own challenges. Some difficulties include the interpreter remembering in their short-term memory what the speaker said and relaying the message back in real time. This can be especially difficult if you have a speaker who talks fast. Other challenges include decoding terminology on the fly because the interpreter won’t be able to stop and look up a word. They will also need to make judgement calls such as whether or not to omit translating certain information while still maintaining the essence of the message.
So, how do translation earpieces fit in?
Colonel Moamer Kadhafi made a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2009. He brought his own interpreter to translate, but after translating for 75 minutes the interpreter nearly collapsed from exhaustion. This is another challenge for most interpreters as 30 minutes of non-stop verbal translation can cause fatigue. It’s necessary to have back-up interpreters to take another interpreter’s place in order to reduce the rate of burnout.
Translation earbuds are generally advertised as being able to translate instantaneously between X amount of languages, reduce communication barriers, and generally make doing business easier across countries. In his book Industries of the Future, Alec Ross, a former Senior Advisor of Innovation to the Secretary of State, predicts that in-ear translation technology will dramatically increase the ability to do business in remote, linguistically diverse places:
Machine translation will also take markets that are viewed as being difficult to navigate because of language barriers and make them more accessible. I think of Indonesia in particular. There are plenty of English, Mandarin, and French speakers in Jakarta and Bali, but very few of them on most of the other 6 000 inhabited islands. If one does not need to be fluent in Javanese (or any of the 700 other languages spoken in Indonesia) to do business in those other provinces, then they are immediately more accessible and outside capital is in turn more accessible to them. (160)
Machine translation (MT) with the capability to do interpretation could increase business prospects in remote countries where resources are scarce but opportunities rich. With the help of MT earphones, existing possibilities could now be exploited, and instead of worrying about interpreter fatigue, the main worry for MT technology will be battery die-out.
Does this mean that advances in translation technology will lead to the extinction of language professionals?
It’s important to remember that machine translation can be beneficial in one area and not so helpful in another. Real time, in-ear translation technology could be useful for developing partnerships that are great for business ventures, but caution should be heeded by users who are contemplating on pursuing a trustworthy and empathetic relationship with someone using only translation earphones. All in all, MT is a helping hand, an extra support when traditional methods of approaching and solving a problem aren’t practical. Therefore, knowing when to use MT depends on context. It’s undeniable that machine translation is here to stay and evolve with the translation industry. But more importantly, they’re not here to supplant translators, but to support them.
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