From Google Translate on smartphones to devices that translate in real time, technology designed to bridge language barriers is on the rise. But what will this mean for the future of communication and culture?
Language is one of the most fundamental cultural differences to explore when visiting a new place, but it can also be one of the more frustrating hurdles that tourists must overcome.
There is a plethora of translation devices and technologies that make talking to local people and understanding a new environment easier for travelers almost anywhere in the world. The days of rummaging through a phrase book and mispronouncing words at an ever-increasing volume are over, as our phones can do most of the work.
At the FIFA World Cup in Russia, fans from all over the globe converged in a country with a tricky language and an even trickier Cyrillic alphabet. Google reported a 30% rise in the use of its Translate mobile app from the country, and saw searches for “World Cup”, “stadium” and “beer” increase by 200%, 135% and 65% respectively.
One of the main drivers behind the deluge of translation apps and devices is the improvement of natural language processing – basically, the way computers understand what we say and write. In essence, the emergence of machine-learning technology has revolutionized the way natural language processing works.
Previously, a computer would be programmed to identify patterns in the text or audio it receives as input in order to determine what is being said and how to respond. With machine learning, the computer looks for patterns in huge amounts of data from previous conversations already inputted into the system, and applies those that are relevant to the speech it listens to or reads. The more data it has to call on, the better it is at matching those patterns that we process naturally as speech.
Lingmo International is an Australian company offering a translation app and smartwatches capable of real-time translation. The technology relies on IBM’s Watson AI to employ machine-learning capabilities.
“We train the system by teaching Watson to watch videos with subtitles, and it also learns from people in the field using the technology,” says CEO Danny May. “For example, if you say ‘G’day mate, how ya going?’ as we do in Australia, a person who received that translation via perhaps an automated online translator would have no idea what was being said. Instead, the AI recognises the intent of the phrase and translates it into the local dialect, so it would be received as ‘Hello, how are you?’”
These advances in technology have spurred a number of other companies to move into the space, such as Travis and ili. Both offer standalone devices capable of translating conversations. These devices usually work in the same way: the user pushes a button and speaks into a microphone, and through the internet the words are translated and either displayed on a screen, or spoken out loud by the device in the user’s native language. You can even use ili without being connected to the internet.
Travis’s technology was conceived from a moment of tragedy. “My father died in the French part of Belgium and I wasn’t able to communicate with police and other people to find out what happened,” says CEO and co-founder Brend Kouwenhoven. He and his fellow co-founders were already looking for an idea for a hardware start-up, and subsequently settled on a translation device.
The company’s initially targeted consumers, and travelers remain its largest market, but in the long term Kouwenhoven has focused on the likes of hospitals, jails, police and businesses as potential users of the technology. While some believe translation technology will become another tool for smartphones, he believes a separate device has its advantages.
“Having a special device shows you are really making an effort to communicate, and having a conversation on a dedicated device means you’re not disturbed by calls on your phone,” Kouwenhoven explains. He also notes that a dedicated device can ensure greater privacy, and can be upgraded to include new features.
However, some people believe automated translation can never capture the soul of a language or the culture that surrounds it. “Much like truth has been threatened by fake news, and central banks challenged by cryptocurrencies, translation is under siege by algorithms vying to make us all sound like robots,” says Annalisa Nash Fernandez, an intercultural strategist and certified translator. “We can communicate across cultures, but we can’t really connect, and therefore we retreat where we would otherwise engage. Asking for directions by pointing your translation device results in a different social interaction from a human attempt.
“Using our devices to translate for us connects us in unprecedented ways, but it is far from being a cultural leveler; in fact, cultural differences become more pronounced as we take shelter within our own culture, only venturing out digitally,” she adds.
But Kouwenhoven refutes these claims. He says Travis’s original goal was to take away language barriers, but they have since adjusted that ambition to merely “bridging” them. “People are proud and cherish their language, but they also want to be able to communicate with others,” he argues.
Kouwenhoven also says the device doesn’t necessarily stop people learning new languages. “Speaking French is better than using a device, but if you don’t speak French, you need the device. We have also found that it gives people the confidence to start conversations.”
May believes translation devices do plenty to bring cultures together. “It allows people to interact and experience local traditions in a way previously not possible for everyone,” he says. “Being able to travel is a wonderful opportunity but being able to learn even more from native people, especially when traveling rurally, will diversify the travel experience and give travelers the opportunity to get a better insight into the country they are traveling in.”
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.