Will A Universal Translator Ever Be Possible?

As the technological world spirals relentlessness towards an ever changing future, the number one Science Fiction device that piques any language learner’s interest is the “Universal Translator.” You’ve seen these on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, and even Futurama. The concept is simple but incredibly appealing: provide instant, automatic, and perfect translation from any language to any other language.

Is this a Japanese language learner’s worst fear?

You’ve spent years of hard work, struggle, adversity, and overcoming mountains to master Japanese. You have finally acquired a skill that is rare, valuable, and enables you to access the full and exciting Japanese world. Now how would you feel if anyone with a few hundred dollars could buy a device that did everything you spent years on, except better. Every ability you acquired was included. There was no need to ever study Japanese. You wasted 1, 5, 10 years of your life.

Is a universal translator really possible?

Universal Translator 3

Before the sweat should come pouring down your back, and before you painfully anguish over why you didn’t just wait a few more years, the reality of a real universal translator is still far far away, if it is possible at all. The best translators now are riddled with errors, have big voice recognition problems, and just don’t work anywhere near the way they should. They have improved incredibly since even just ten years ago, but in the near future, you are probably fine for the most part. Your language investment is safe.

The problem is language just isn’t that simple (you didn’t know that?)

But major companys X, Y, and Z all say they are working hard towards it

Companies have been saying this for years. Now I will admit, improved translators have some use. Sometimes just getting the errored gist of what is being said or written has significant value. So the new and improved devices that will be coming out over the next years will definitely have a market for them.

What if a universal translator actually becomes reality?

I’m a huge technology fan. And human drive, innovation, and creativity is all about creating what was thought to be impossible to create. History has shown this repeatedly in the past, and even growing up, so much Sci Fi impossible technology has slowly become reality in just the span of 10 to 20 years.

So let’s assume for the sake of argument that the technology makes a huge leap by doing something completely not thought of up until now (for example, some kind of brain scanning of a Japanese person’s language center). And now there is a perfect universal translator. Everything is great right?

In the beginning it will probably be a handheld device

If it is a physical device, like a smartphone, you still have to take it out and start it up, and hold it up for use. If you are using it to read, you need to scan it over text to have it translated. A lot of time you need language instantly, and small delays are bad. Need to shout out “help” in Japanese as you are being robbed?

Then it will be an attached device

Google Glass is approaching closer to reality. This removes the necessity of having to pull a device out and start it up. Google Glass will always be on. Translate written or spoken Japanese instantly, no matter what. Unless you are swimming or something. Or if the battery dies.

And finally it will be an implant

Eventually, technology should move forward to not actually needing devices, and just being able to access things from our eyes, ears, and mind through some sort of implant. The brain charges it, it is waterproof, and it is available for instant use, any time.

Now studying Japanese to fluency is worthless . . .

Can a universal translator ever replace fluency?

What is a universal translator actually doing? It is taking one language and making it understandable into your own native language. There are some serious flaws with this concept, even if a universal translator works flawlessly.

What’s the voice?

Will the voice that is translated be a set of standard voices that the translator uses, changing the original speaker’s voice? Or will it be the exact voice that was used to speak, except in the new language? How would this work where voice tone makes a big difference? Even if a Chinese speaker’s words were translated perfectly to English, they would sound quite strange if the original intonation remained. I suppose that an ideal translator would change varying intonation and pronunciation to automatically match your native language.

But then this would kill all forms of dialects, pronunciation, tone, and pitch, which makes a person sound like the unique person he is.

How are cultural items translated?

If you’ve ever watched subbed anime, you’ll often find series that add cultural or explanation notes for certain things said on screen. Certain words and phrases don’t make any sense regardless if they are translated, because without the cultural knowledge, they are beyond your reach.

How would a universal translator handle this? If someone attached the word ちゃん to the end of your name (to show that you are either younger, trying to be cute with you, or trying to be affectionate), what would the universal translator do? It couldn’t just leave the word out. I suppose it could add in a footnote.


would sound like

“Good morning, Adshap! Culture note: speaker is trying to be affectionate to you.”

How is humor translated?

Humor is something so simple, yet so complex. As with the problem above, humor is highly attached to culture. Footnotes would have to be added left and right. And these footnotes would have to be updated constantly, as humor changes on a daily basis thanks to current events, news, and the changing world.

Language puns? Same issue, even worse.

How are mistakes handled?

People make mistakes in their native language. It’s a simple fact of speaking and writing. And of using the internet. Especially Facebook. How would they be dealt with? Would the mistake translate over as a mistake in your native language (which would really be impossible to translate)? Or would mistakes be removed completely. Does this mean that all language you encounter would be in perfect, grammatically correct format? What about people who make mistakes on purpose, for humor or to add character?

What about people who speak with some form of impediment, or stutter, or have a disability? Will this all come out sounding natural?

Acceptance and Stigma

If you are using a universal translator, there is a good chance the other speaker will know this. Will there be stigmas attached to this? Will people think “stupid idiot, can’t learn the language so he has to use a device to help him.” Or will there be instant global acceptance?

Accuracy and Trust

While many conversations and reading are okay to not be 100% perfect, what about language in critical situations? Where one spoken mishap, or one mistranslated written word may cause disaster. One mistake in a major corporate contract, or one inappropriate word by a politician can have grave consequences.

Language evolves

Language is constantly evolving on a daily basis. Meanings change. Context changes. Correct and incorrect words change. New words are constantly created. The universal translator would have to keep up with this on a daily basis.

Warping and tampering with culture and language

Parents raise their children in strange ways all the time. What happens when a generation of parents want their children to grow up with English as their native language regardless of what language the family speaks, or the country they live in? So from birth they set up a universal translator so that everything they hear and see is translated into English. People will grow experiencing a different language than the country they live in. Is this good? What happens to cultural identity?

Will “The Matrix” technology ever arrive?

For those who have never seen the Matrix (really? . . .), you had a PC linkup directly to your brain where you could download software giving yourself mastery in any ability. Let’s assume the software was Japanese ability, as taken directly from Japanese people. This would mean that their isn’t translation anymore. After an upload to your brain, you speak and read Japanese, like a Japanese person. Every problem above is solved right?

While everyone who saw this movie probably remembers this as such an amazing concept, if this technology existed, society would collapse.

The implication is that you could acquire any skill in the world, with absolute perfection, in an instant. Every person could do everything. Now I’m sure someone could write up how a society like this could function, but it is beyond me. So if this technology ever existed, whether you wasted time studying Japanese or not would be the least of your worries.

What would you do?

Do you think a universal translator is on the horizon? What (other) reasons do you think make it possible or impossible? Would you use it?

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Will A Universal Translator Ever Be Possible? — 10 Comments

  1. Just today a family friend sent a document in French to my dad, who translated the document to English. Then he sent his translation to me, where I made lots of changes. Then my mom decided to pipe in and see how she would translate it.

    Three native French people speaking fluent English (I’m actually also native USA-American) translating one document into English found three different ways to express the purpose of the document.

    A universal translator will just never have the needed style.

    • Good point. There is really no set way of translating something. People interpret and process things in different ways which leaves a “unified” translation to be quite a difficult, if not impossible task.

  2. This post is just really inspirational and would be amazing to write a sci-fi story based on.

    As for implants, cochlear implants give the ability for some deaf people to hear, and they are not waterproof, one cannot slide down a slide because of static electricity and having one means one cannot get an MRI. So if an implant like that did exist, it would most likely follow the same flaws.

    Of course, I’d never use a universal translator as such. Also, if some sort of chip device that I could install and suddenly know Japanese existed, I wouldn’t appreciate the language like I do now, because it would just be like speaking my native language. I do appreciate English more now that I’m learning a second language, but I didn’t before I started learning one.

    However, for some people who need to learn a foreign language out of necessity, and not out of desire, they might be interested in such a device. Even though the device would be flawed for the reasons you listed, it’d probably be better than what they produce in the language.

    • Thanks Rachel!

      I agree that learning the language makes you really appreciate both your native and target language. The treasure lies in the journey, not the destination.

  3. Even before translating, such a device would need to be able to extract and distinguish words from noisy environments and extract text in arbitrary fonts from backgrounds. Neither of these alone are solved problems, which is why you can’t reliably dictate a letter to your computer and why websites use captchas.

    Personally, it seems to me that language is so tied to consciousness that I suspect a universal translator and strong AI are equivalent problems, it might be necessary to solve either to solve the other. And then you run into the problem that your translation program, being a fully sentient individual, might feel it has better things to do with its time. “Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to translate ‘Odin‘ for them. Call that job satisfaction, ’cause I don’t.” Just to continue the Hitchhiker’s theme :)

    On a related topic, if anyone hasn’t seen bad translator, it’s occasionally good for some chuckles.

    • Even people have trouble in their native language understanding in a noisy environment. We rely a lot on body language, context, and guessing when we have trouble hearing the other person.

      Yeah, I don’t know how comfortable I would feel using a Strong AI!

  4. I think it won’t be possible. they can reach certain level but language is living thing and as long systems are build the way they are today they are not able predict everything.

  5. Even if they did find the Babelfish somewhere off in space, I wouldn’t use it, simply because I love the Japanese language. I think it’s a beautiful language. Can you imagine a Japanese song dubbed into English by your handy dandy translator? (If you’ve ever seen the English dub of an anime theme song, you’ll know just how terrible they are.) Same with dramas and anime and the rest of the usual suspects. I can’t stand dubs. I just prefer Japanese much better. And talking with someone just wouldn’t be the same. Can you imagine how awkward that would be?

    I can actually imagine technology reaching a point where something like this is possible. We have speech recognition technology, algorithm-powered translation and text-to-speech software already. It can’t be too long before some businessdude starts making the ultimate tourist device. But I don’t think it will ever evolve far past the chopped-up Google Translate speech just because language is far too complex.

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