Will A Universal Translator Ever Be Possible? — 12 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.

  6. The translation delay would kill the fun of communicating with another person. People would talk less and text more even if they’re face to face.

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