I love technology way too much, to the point where I (too frequently) read what other people would consider to be obscure technology blogs devoted to specific mobile operating systems. So when Google announced some significant upgrades to its popular Google Translate smart phone application I was excited, and rightly so. The upgraded app now has Star Trek-esque functionality because if you point your smart phone camera at text from a foreign language, it instantly translates the words into the language of your choice (though currently it only supports a few languages) – I’ve tried and it really works like magic.
Furthermore, instead of writing and then tapping on ‘translate’, now you can just talk to the application in one language and it will instantly talk back in another language, allowing people to have conversations in two different languages (fellow Sci-Fi fans will relate this functionality to the ubiquitous universal translators that conveniently help overcome a significant barrier in inter-species communication in may different series / movies). This feature could become especially handy in more pragmatic contexts (since having full conversations through it isn’t really that pragmatic), such as when you are traveling through a foreign airport and need to ask someone a quick question in a language you don’t speak.
Some might assume the continuing improvement of translation technology means they don’t have to work as hard at learning another language when traveling abroad, or that all the years they’ve spent doing so will be useless.
Well, I’m here to tell you there is nothing to worry about. As many others have already pointed out (e.g., this post, this post), no matter how advanced Google Translate and other technologies get, we are a very long way from them being a substitute for the capabilities of the human brain. There are just too many verbal and non-verbal communication complexities at play for you to buy into the idea that technology can act as your only way to communicate with people in languages other than your own.
As just one example of these complexities, take common culture-specific idioms; if we ask Google to translate ‘she has to face the music…’ from English to Spanish it would probably succeed, but the meaning being communicated might be completely lost. Check out the video below, made by Mashable, for a visual on how great the new application is, but also how greatly it can mess up.
So what is my main point here?
Google Translate is an amazing application (I also like the company, not trying to Google bash here), but for now, use it as just one tool in your arsenal of intercultural communication in different languages, and don’t plan to depend on it solely during your next trip!
Disclaimer: The above post is an old one, which I am reposting on this new website. It has been edited.