Machine translation has made huge advances since scientists laboriously punched Russian words into “electronic translators” in the 1950s. But the dream of the “universal translator” is still a long way off – creating plenty of opportunities for amusing slip-ups and linguistic faux pas.
The concept of the Universal Translator has been a staple of science fiction for decades. It’s almost always used as device to solve the rather pesky problem of having to understand all alien life forms without much effort.
The world’s languages are dying out at a faster pace than ever before. Many minority languages have only a handful of speakers left. They may be the last generation ever to speak their native tongue, knowing that much of their culture, stories and shared knowledge will be lost forever.
On Google Translate’s sixth birthday this month, its developers had plenty of reasons to celebrate. Two hundred million in fact: that’s the number of people who use its free international language services each month.
You might not be surprised to know that demand for global language services is growing. More of the world’s population are getting online, making the web a much more multilingual place. And the economic slowdown in Europe and North America has led more companies to target emerging markets.
Machine translation might seem like a new phenomenon, but it’s actually 58 years old this month. Researchers at IBM and Georgetown University began developing an automated Russian to English translator in 1954, with operators laboriously punching messages onto cards.
Like many simple questions, this is one with no easy answer. For one thing, it’ll depend whether it’s a complex technical report, a novel, or just an email in another language.
Today, tourists are increasingly likely to rely on smartphone apps for international translations, rather than dog-eared phrasebooks. And professional translators are replacing their dictionaries with an array of sophisticated, computerised tools.
Reducing translation costs is a hot topic for businesses small and large. In the past many have turned to good old Google Translate for help, which, while it certainly does aid in reducing translation costs, is also pretty inaccurate.