Imagine you could stick something in your ear and instantly be able to understand any language you hear.
That’s the concept of a Babel Fish, from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” It’s a small, yellow fish that hacks your brain waves and acts as a universal translator.
But while Babel Fish may be science fiction, the future is already here. Google has just come out with Pixel Buds – head phones that offer real-time in-ear translation.
And while the technology may not be perfect yet, you might be wondering:
Am I spending thousands of hours learning a new language when soon enough all translation will be instant?
Is language learning obsolete?
We understand your concern, but we’re here to tell you NO. Don’t give up now!
Here are seven reasons why when it comes to learning languages, nothing beats the real thing (no matter what translation technologies are invented in the future).
- Translation is always a compromise.
Accurate translation is often difficult because words don’t fit into neatly defined boxes.
The closest translation of a word may not fully capture the concept, and in extreme cases, (see “untranslatable” words) it might require a whole sentence to explain its meaning.
As a result, phrases that are beautiful and elegant in one language can become long and clunky in another, and translators have to compromise between maintaining the style and maintaining exact meaning.
This is why some people prefer to read their favorite novels in their original languages—because no translator can possibly capture all of the meaning of the original text.
When it comes to everyday speech, the disparity only gets worse.
Spoken language tends to be a lot freer than its written counterpart.
Without thinking about it, we take short cuts in our pronunciation, throw in slang, and even coin new words.
And that’s all before even mentioning the intonation and emotion we use, which are often more important than the actual words we’ve said.
So even if speech recognition and machine translation improve enough to be as good as a live human translator, some meanings will inevitably be lost in translation.
- You’ll always be behind the conversation.
Even a perfect translator can’t predict what someone will say next.
So at best, you’ll hear everything at a fraction of a second’s delay as the technology detects the language and then spits it back out in your native tongue.
But because word order is different across languages, there may be times when you have to wait for the end of a sentence before you can catch up with an accurate translation.
In a one-on-one conversation, you may be able to get used to this. But in a group conversation, you’ll likely find yourself left behind.
- You’ll struggle to make jokes.
With translation compromised, and your timing off, good luck ever trying to make or understand jokes.
Naturally, I found lots of examples of hilarious jokes to demonstrate this, but unfortunately they’re all in languages you don’t speak and wouldn’t make sense in English.
So here’s one from a Penguin biscuit wrapper instead. I think it neatly demonstrates both the “terribleness” and “untranslatability” of puns:
Why couldn’t the bicycle stand up?
Because it was two-tyred.
Okay, okay, maybe you wouldn’t be missing much if you didn’t understand that pun. But you’d also miss out on other kinds of joking around, like putting on accents or doing impersonations.
- You’ll miss out on the music.
Translating spoken word is hard enough, but when you have a strict rhythm and a melody to worry about, it becomes almost impossible.
No matter how good your translator is, it’s never going to be able to replace enjoying a song in the language it was written.
- Any middle man can cause misunderstanding.
Even when we do speak the same language, misunderstandings happen all the time.
And conversations where we feel like we can’t manage to explain ourselves are often the most frustrating of all.
Given that you can’t check exactly what another person’s translator is telling them, you’ll have no idea if it’s interpreting your message correctly.
And when you find that you haven’t managed to get your point across, you’ll have no feedback to help you explain it better.
- Fluency is a different level of immersion in another culture.
True, having an ultimate translator would be better than cluelessly listening to people speak a language you don’t understand and wondering if the bursts of laughter are at your expense.
But with a translator, you’ll still be seeing the local culture through the lens of your own language. So you won’t see the culture for itself, but in comparison to your own.
If instead, you make the effort to think and speak in the local language, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the local culture and its idiosyncrasies.
Initially, you’ll be forced to be somewhat childlike, because your thinking will be limited by a poor grasp of the language.
But as that child grows up, you’ll find your thoughts and conversations getting richer and more nuanced. And your appreciation for the new culture will be deeper than it ever could have been without this process.
- You want to make connections with people.
Having access to instant translations will indeed be wonderful for many day-to-day transactions.
The invention of a Babel Fish-like technology will revolutionize travel, business, and beyond.
But when it comes to developing personal connections, translation will never substitute for speaking to people in their own languages.
People will always prefer communication to be as effortless as possible. This is why reasons #1-5 will make it tricky to hold on to translation-enabled friendships (and why learning proper pronunciation is important).
After all, conversation is at it’s best when you can really be present with other people—following every word of their stories, directly hearing the expression in their voices, and instantly getting their jokes without having to wait for an explanation from a fish living in your ear.
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Can you think of any other shortcomings of machine translation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!