The Future of Translation
"The great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgment." Brian Eno
In the way that thinking about the future often leads you to think about the past, recent advances in speech recognition http://huff.to/2epmVpy and language translation http://bit.ly/2dUranV software have had me thinking about my old French teacher, Richard “Piggy” Marsden.
Back in the mid 1970’s it was Piggy’s unenviable task to try and teach me and my classmates the difference between feminine and masculine past participles when all I really cared about was the difference between the Sex Pistols and The Clash. [Answer; the Sex Pistols were the puppets of a propagandist, The Clash were a rock and roll band].
Mr. Marsden – ah, heck, why change the habit of a lifetime, Piggy - was, as I recall through 40 years of mist, a terrifically nice person. Unlike many of his colleagues who seemed to revel in the opportunities to be unpleasant to the inmates, Piggy was a gentle soul who appeared to be on the side of us kids, not the other teachers. Though he tried hard to drum the beau language into my tete laide (in fact, I even had extra remedial lessons with him) in the end he had to admit defeat as I failed to trouble the scorers when “O” level time came around. [My failure entirely sir, not yours].
Fast forward to today and I wonder what Piggy (and all his colleagues) in the language teaching business think about the imminent collapse of their profession?
Let’s face it; we are on the brink of one of the major themes of science fiction becoming fact.
Soon – very soon – I will be able to walk into the Café Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain and say “Good evening, I’d like a table for two please. By the window. And please send over a bottle of your best champagne and six oysters as quickly as possible, thank you so much my good man” in English, at the normal pace at which I speak, and immediately be understood by the defiantly non-English speaking maître d’ as my words are rendered in perfect French.
Oh Piggy, the very thought must make you weep.
For cretins like me this technological breakthrough is nothing short of magnifique! With the ability to understand and be understood anywhere in the world all sorts of trips that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before will now make it onto my bucket list; not just the 6th arrondissement but the Russian steppes, the heart of African darkness, the back streets of the Kasbah - nowhere will be beyond the comprendo of an Englishman abroad.
Learning a foreign language has been a hallmark of a good education (and the font of many people’s paycheck) for a couple of hundred years but now you’ve got to wonder, why bother? To learn grammar? OK, but why not spend more time learning the grammar of your own primary language? (My failure to learn French was, in large part, nothing to do with Piggy; I hadn’t been taught English grammar before starting to learn French grammar so I didn’t really even know what a past participle was – though I went to a grammar school). To learn about the culture of a foreign country? OK, but why not just go there now given that it’s so easy to speak their language through the software on the phone? To see your own country through the eyes of people from other countries? OK, but again, if we can go and chat to people in Paris or Tunis or Buenos Aires, face to face, or over Face Time, today, as 14 year olds, why don’t we just get on with it, rather than spending five years on theory in a classroom before we venture out into the real world?
Though education is a precious and delicate thing, which should be adjusted slowly and gently and should be wary of fads and fashions, the idea that the curricula for the middle of the 21st century should remain untouched and immune to technological driven progress seems a difficult case to make.
Why don’t French women get fat? Because software’s eating everything.
Did Jim Kirk learn Klingon at the Starfleet Academy? No, he perfected the Kobayashi Maru and how to suck in his stomach so it fit his too tight tunic. He knew that the Universal Translator would take care of the bothersome aspects of talking to the Klingon Chancellor. How many Klingon teachers were at the Academy? None.
Learning a language now just seems like a terrific waste of time. Better to learn the language of the future – code.
(You knew there was an except coming didn’t you – if there hadn’t been an except this would have just been a rant, a 40 year dish of revenge served from a very cold freezer).
... translation might be the most valuable skill anyone has to learn in a future where code rules.
But not your father’s translation (or Piggy’s). A new type of translation – translating points of view.
Think about it this way; Cortana or Siri or Alexa or Amy or Baxter will do the translating – the nitty gritty technical work of making my “alright mate” Piggy’s “bonjour”- but translating Piggy’s shrug of the shoulders - as he speaks - into my wink of my eye - as I listen - and knowing what these gestures mean and imply will remain a human grade task long into the Singularity.
Software will increasingly let us understand but make understanding more difficult.
Software based translation will mix up people of different languages at a scale that the world has never seen before. Latvians will talk to Maoris. Filipinos will talk to Peruvians. Zambians will talk to Kuwaitis. Not in English as they may do today but in their own language. And not just small numbers of the more adventurous who wander far afield, but huge numbers of regular ordinary folk who would never have learned a second or a third or a 17th language but now can chat away about the World Cup final or global warming or Donald Trump.
Software based translation will bring together people in ways that have never been possible before in a global experiment in which we will all be guinea pigs.
It is not hard to see incredible, wonderful things arising from this extraordinary new capability. Nation shall speak peace unto nation. There will be no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met (and spoken to in their own language) yet.
A post nation-state world will likely move closer to reality.
But in the global melting pot of a universal babel fish mediated world genuine understanding will probably be more tricky than ever, for below language lies meaning, and meaning is the repository of DNA, history, culture, ambition, anxiety, and time, that flow deep into the soil on which you stand.
This truth is observable in the more mundane surrounds of our everyday workplace. The marketer sits with the procurement clerk – do you understand where I’m coming from? Do you know what I mean? The business analyst sits with the end user – you really don’t get this, do you. The CEO sits with the CIO – one of them is from Mars, the other, Venus.
The world – our working world – is full of misunderstanding; even when we’re speaking the same tongue.
The language of finance is different from the language of medicine which is different from the language of soccer which is different from the langue of sales which is different from the language of love.
Misunderstanding is rife. Misunderstanding is the norm. Misunderstanding is natural. Human.
Software won’t change that – in fact it might make it worse.
Back to Eno; the skill of understanding French (and teachers’ monetization of such) is set to go away – the judgment to understand someone else (in a café, in a meeting) is set to be the ability that will need teaching and learning and mastering in an era where all seven billion (soon, ten billion) of us can talk together.
In the frenzied debate about the software based displacement of human skill the more purple prose can only ever focus on the black and white of loss and gain; hardly ever on the gray of mutation.
Piggy – if he’s still teaching (if this piece ever finds its way to you Mr. Marsden, I hope you are well, and I hope you aware of my gratitude and respect) – probably doesn’t have a long career ahead (Ed. he’s probably already retired!) teaching le, la, nous, etc. to spotty nosed little bleeders. But I’d hazard a guess that there is a long, long career ahead for those that can teach the next generation that there’s nothing funny about peace, love, and understanding. http://bit.ly/1DCCEAo
That will probably be beyond the grasp of software for some time come. That’s a job for the ages.