Lost in translation?

Recent advances in technology are now helping to break down language barriers and revolutionise the role of traditional translators. As a recent article in the Guardian reports, Microsoft prepares to unveil its Star Trek translator, a Skype service that can understand spoken words and translate them into another language, speaking them back in real time. But how far can translator technology go?

On the one hand, languages do not lend themselves to computer algorithms as readily as other human disciplines. Everyday conversation is full of false-starts and errors that speakers and listeners rarely notice, but which can confuse computers. Moreover, translation is made even more challenging by tone of voice, cultural references, idioms and humour. Many words do not have a direct translation, because the concepts simply do not exist in another culture.

Time is a factor too; the rules that govern grammar change over the years meaning old words die out, and new ones are coined. It’s also very common for one word to have multiple meanings. Using the word ‘great’ for example, “Jonny was great at football” has a different meaning to “Mike had a great big portion of pasta”. Likewise, one meaning can have multiple words and are often used interchangeably; consider the word ‘dirty’, people also use the words ‘filthy’, ‘grimy’, ‘grubby’, ‘mucky’ etc. to describe the same thing.

On the other hand though, new technologies like Microsoft’s Star Trek translator and older ones like Google Translate can be used by professional translators who have to deal with scarce resources available to them. Translators also have the benefit of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools to ensure terminology is consistent in lengthy documents and to help speed up their work.

What’s more translators are able to use terminology databases to research complex or specific terminology that they wouldn’t necessarily use in everyday life.

And there are other technologies that support language learning generally. The potential of video is vast; it can be used to give learners instructions, present them with material and even to produce videos themselves. Use of technology for language learning has also moved towards the internet and social networks which allows learners to join online groups that share interests in particular languages. Technology can also provide audio-video materials that can be paused, repeated, slowed down or sped up, while other tools can be used to record and analyse a learner’s own speech.

Online and mobile vocabulary learning applications like Vocab Express are also of real benefit. Originally designed with the assistance of a number of leading language departments, today we work with more than 600 schools across the UK to support effective language learning.

Ultimately, language translation and language learning technologies are there to provide a helping hand. With these at your fingertips, there’s no reason for anyone to miss out on the excitement of learning a new language, as well as all the benefits that multilingualism has to offer.

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