Babel Glass: Translation is Magic

On October 1, 2013, CEATEC Japan opened for five days of technological wonders. The expo looks like a candy store of everything that has touch screens and wireless links and chrome and glass. This isn’t just a big tent for live-action infomercials, though. A lot of these products are still in the development stages, so we are looking at technology that could be part of our lives some day in the future. One of the products being developed is NTT Docomo’s Intelligent Glasses.

The Intelligent Glasses are similar to the much-discussed Google Glass project. There is a headset with an display over the right eye and a camera to scan the world around you. The glasses offer the ability to turn any flat surface into a mock touch screen. A peripheral tracks hand movements in relation to the camera’s field of vision to control this. The camera also uses facial recognition, which is a slightly terrorizing concept to me. I’m envisioning walking through the world with a halo of personal data around everyone’s head, constantly forced to know their status or favorite team or opinions on recent news…wait. That sounds familiar…

Okay, but the really cool part of the glasses is still coming. This is the part that made me want to talk about them in this column, even though I really don’t have anything much to say about turning them into a magical version. Because this bit is pretty much Magic is Science all on its own. They translate. They translate whatever they see.

Holy shit, what?

They can currently handle English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Which is impressive right there, because that’s six writing systems alone. This is the Babel fish and universal translators and whatever excuse they used about the stargates doing something for language comprehension in the Stargate Universe. And this is real. That’s kind of a big deal. We are living in a science fictional universe right now.

You can see a picture of the Intelligent Glasses in action here. The monitor on the left shows, I think, what the person is seeing through the headset as they look at that menu. It doesn’t look like the translation has come through yet, but there is apparently a solid five second delay, so it might still be processing. I did see a news clip, which I do not have a link for, in which they showed the translation on-screen. It appears as an overlay of text on the original. It used as an example the same menu that appears in the photo above.

I would be interested in seeing how the translation performs with more advanced materials. My Japanese is somewhere between spotty and nonexistent because I am many years out of practice with it. I can, however, read much of what is on the menu (the main headings, for example, say soup, salad, main dishes, and dessert). It is written in katakana, the syllabary most often used to render loan words from other languages. So, basically, the glasses are reading English words that have migrated into Japanese use and are written in a special system used largely for that purpose. Point is, translating them back is not the most taxing exercise, relatively speaking. I’d like to see the glasses at work on newspaper articles with higher reading levels or on proper names, such as street signs, where a literal translation is not the correct one.

An Aside:

One thing that bothers me about “global culture” is the way in which English is becoming not merely universally recognized, but required. There’s an article here (via ysabetwordsmith) about prejudice against English speakers attempting to speak the native languages of places they visit. The native people want to use English instead. Learning new, non-English languages is increasingly frowned upon, appallingly enough.

English is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. It can talk about a hell of a lot of things. Not everything, though, which is why I find it so troubling that languages are dying all the time as their populations disappear or get swallowed up by a dominant culture and language. The death of any language means the death of some words that it handled better than anything else. Without words, we have no shared ideas. If English is the only language any of us have, we only have concepts that exist in English (unless/until we invent new words for them).

So, to my way of thinking, commonly available translation abilities would offer an alternative to this anglophone takeover: convenience without conversion. I would rather have translators, even imperfect ones, than a single, universal language.

Between the delay in translation and the limited pool of languages, the glasses are far from perfected. They are, however, goddamn amazing in their potential. I want us to reach a point where simultaneous audio translation is possible for all people, all the time. This is a step in that direction. (I do, however, keep in mind the warning in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy regarding the Babel fish: by removing all linguistic barriers, it has been responsible for more wars than anything else in the world. Knowing exactly what the other person is saying isn’t always a boon.)

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?