I was wandering around the ocean of links and more links, when I found a blog called Flabbertech, which announces enthusiastically that “the simultaneous translator is almost a reality”. There is a Star Trek quote and then the blogger asks us what is surely meant to be a rhetorical question:
Have you ever dreamt or even just hoped to be able to communicate with every person in the world without having to know all the languages but simply by speaking your mother tongue?
Honestly, not at all. At the most I have dreamt or hoped to be able to learn thirty or a thousand languages. Mainly because if I didn’t know a specific language, I would be lacking a tool that is essential if one wants to understand the culture speaking it. And the conversation would be somewhat beckettian, I guess. It’s perfectly fine to be a nerd, finer still dreaming about a Star Trek utopia (I had the entire classic series on tape, just for the record, and it would be awesome to have a replicator and get pappardelle with fresh porcini down here in Australia) but when we talk about reality can we please try to keep its complexity in mind? Too many people still see completely oblivious of the fact that languages are not equivalent and interchangeable codes. I can cope with this, but on the other hand I think it’s sort of my duty to contribute my two cents and try to spread the awareness of what language is, and how the sentence “in the beginning was the word” has quite a literal meaning.
Anyway, let’s not delve into the nature of language and the way it’s inextricably linked to culture, and let’s see: does this thing work? Are we really in Star Trek, and I hadn’t noticed? There’s a video explaining how the widget works:
Images of Captain Kirk aside, it doesn’t really seem that mind-blowing. Watching the video we find out that the program is being tested in 25 situations American soldiers commonly find themselves in Afghanistan. In the comments, we find out that you need 4-5 seconds to translate 10 words. Basically, it’s nothing amazing. Especially when one thinks of the cost of these projects. Very advanced technology, don’t get me wrong, but – considering the results – was it really necessary? Brian Weiss, part of the evaluation team, says (2 mins 20 secs)
unfortunately there is a shortage of interpreters, a shortage of very reliable interpreters, and machine translation offers a unique tool in the sense that machines don’t get tired, people do.
Meet Captain Obvious. To reply in style, do we dare say that people interpret – in the fullest sense of the word, meaning that they are able to evaluate and give meaning to, say, non-verbal messages – and machines don’t? A flesh-and-bone interpreter will be quicker and much more accurate. Secondly, they could count on their knowledge and understanding of the “other” culture. Finally, they will be able to interact with people using not only these cultural tools, but also that 80% of communication that is non-verbal. Big shots from an intelligence agency should know these are not small details. Or at least, an average citizen whose security is supposedly in their hands would hope so.
Weiss might be right when he says that there is shortage of interpreters, and I guess that very few professionals are ready to move to Afghanistan or Iraq and work on the field. Why not look to the military, then, and invest in training? Many people choose to join the army to be able to study, why not offer incentives to whoever chooses the path of language learning and interpreting?
A little research, and I find out, on Cellular News, that the project, named TRANSTAC, is currently being tested on Pashto, Dari and Iraqi Arabic. One would expect some major breakthrough, but the gist is old news:
All new TRANSTAC systems all work much the same way, says project manager Craig Schlenoff. An English speaker talks into the phone. Automatic speech recognition distinguishes what is said and generates a text file that software translates to the target language. Text-to-speech technology converts the resulting text file into an oral response in the foreign language. This process is reversed for the foreign language speaker.
Are you kidding me? Firstly, there’s the problem of how reliable speech recognition might be (think of noise, and above all dialects and idiolects). Secondly, judging by the shortcomings of machine translation, I wouldn’t be to sure of that text-to-text part, either. Synthesis is probably the only segment that, bar major disasters, seems to be reliable. Is this stuff really seen as preferrable to the training of flesh-and-bones “war interpreters”?
Apparently so. The problem of bad translation in the theater of war was analysed brilliantly by Emily Apter in The Translation Zone. Where we can see that similar technologies have been around for a while and so far
the results proved to be unreliable, and in the worst cases fatally flawed
Emily Apter’s essay also includes a quote of a New York Times article from 2003, where Edward Luttwak hints to the linguistic side of intelligence gathering:
”To be a case officer you have to be a poet,” he continued. ”You need to romance and seduce. You need to be able to learn Urdu in six months.” Woefully short of language skills, many American intelligence officials, ”can’t even ask for a cup of coffee.”
Great. It’s not hard to imagine the kind of information gathered by an organisation which does not seem to have any idea of how important linguistic competence is. To the point that, instead of implementing new programs and train operatives with an in-depth knowledge of the language and culture of the war zone, they prefer to play Spock & Kirk with unlikely and dreadfully expensive gadgets which will hardly ever replace human intelligence. Looks like a bunch of fluff to me.
PHOTO: Communicator vs. iPhone, by Lee Bennett (Flickr)