In a Wall Street Journal article from January 2016, Alec Ross argued that the language barrier is about to fall. According to Ross, a technology expert, we can expect that in ten years from now, earpieces will provide us with translations in real-time. Language trainers, traditional dictionary publishers and translators can all say goodbye to their careers or embrace the technological advances and re-train.
In response to Ross, David Arbesú, Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of South Florida, acknowledges that translation tools, such as Bing Translator, Babelfish and Google Translate have improved immensely throughout the past years.
Arbesú, however, highlights that, unlike programming language, “Italian, Russian or Chinese – to name a few of the estimated 7,000 languages in the world – are natural, breathing languages which rely as much on social convention as on syntactic, phonetic or semantic rules.”
Computers may be getting better at replacing one word for another word; yet, computers continue to struggle at comprehending basic meaning.
The below image depicts a simple sentence many hotels use to promote their business:
The German output (on the right) is riddled with mistakes (5+). Alongside grammar mistakes, Google ‘rightly’ translates ‘to treat’ into ‘behandeln’. However, what Google does not know is that when people visit hotels with their family or friends, they seek ‘to treat someone’ rather than to ‘to treat’, as in ‘to nurse someone’.
It is plausible that translation tools will make leaps in coming years. The idea behind semantic technologies is to add explanatory information to web pages, links or external repositories that give meaning and context to words.As translation tools advance, systems will most likely be able to understand that when the verb ‘to treat’ is used for a hotel website, the output should (almost always) read ‘verwöhnen’ rather than ‘to nurse someone’.
This suggests that the key to breaking the language barrier is to feed the system meaning – a relatively straight-forward task it seems. However, when it comes to colloquialism, or the spoken word in general, this gets even more complex.“Gib mir die Kohle,” shouts the bank robber. Of course, he isn’t looking for ‘coal’, he is looking for money.