Written by Philip Magson
For decades, the ability to instantly understand people from across the world, speaking a completely different language, has been a science fiction dream – but Microsoft recently took steps to bring that dream a lot closer to reality with the unveiling of Skype Translator. The new feature combines real-time speech recognition with language decoding software to produce on-screen subtitles and synthesized audio as users speak to each other in video conversation. The potential applications of Skype Translator are revolutionary. We work with customers based all over the world and being able to operate across borders, without a language barrier, promises exciting business opportunities.
But, more than a business tool, real time translation represents the beginning of a new wave of communication capabilities – one which may affect the very foundations of language…
Potential and possibilities
A real time ‘universal translator’ has been a mainstay of science fiction shows like Star Trek for so long because it evokes such a romantic sense of exploration, discovery and adventure. In many ways, language represents the final frontier in our perpetually-connected world, the only thing separating us in a landscape where we can meet up and exchange information in seconds – at the click of a button. The global marketplace seems like the most obvious beneficiary of real time translation. Private companies will be able to facilitate and offer their services much more efficiently and with a much wider scope, forging inter-personal relationships with clients without the need for third party translation services. In its present incarnation, Skype Translator only enables communication between three languages – English, German and Chinese – but if beta-testing is successful, its database will expand rapidly.
Is language dead?
Where does this leave a traditional understanding of language? An implicit advantage of the software is that it eliminates the need to learn the languages of other cultures and countries. Some academics may well predict a nightmare-future where schoolchildren openly rebel at the thought of French and German homework, while millions of university students re-think their Modern Language degrees. Furthermore, real-time translation might contribute to the entrenchment of individual languages – the loss of the loan words, expressions and perspectives which make language and communication so enjoyable, colourful and diverse. It would be naive to suggest that the dawn of truly effective real-time translation capabilities will have no effect on the academic and cultural value of the world’s languages – but nor would it necessarily be disastrous.
In fact, real time translation could be a huge asset to students seeking to learn languages. The ability to get instant feedback on speech is a valuable learning tool, especially for students working without the benefits of a traditional classroom set-up. Deaf, blind and other impaired users will also benefit immensely from the software’s capabilities. Rather than closing down avenues on which students traditionally learn languages, real-time translation could open the landscape up – with new possibilities for education on a much wider scale.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that real-time translation software will not eliminate the need to travel – and may even encourage it in certain contexts. Face-to-face meetings are a fundamental part of human interaction – especially in business relationships, where trust and loyalty play crucial roles and the ability to read personal signals is invaluable. It’s not hard to see translation software paving the way for increasing numbers of real-life business relationships in previously-uncharted global marketplaces.
A new era of communication
While real-time translation software is grabbing the current headlines, online communication remains an exciting technological frontier. Recent advances in virtual-reality and holographic projection are joining real-time translation software in a sector which is progressing dramatically. The Oculus Rift headset project offers users an unprecedented level of immersion in a virtual 3D environment, while smart-phone developers are promising holographic images more advanced and detailed than those seen in the Star Wars movies within years. The possibilities are mouth-watering: imagine putting on a virtual reality headset to talk to a client in China, while your holographic image appears, sitting at a table in the Beijing conference room.
The very nature of remote communication – the way we meet, interact and form relationships with other people personally and professionally – is transforming. As a business, the people we work with and for remain at the heart of our success. If real-time translation software, and the new era of communication it represents, represent a chance to enhance those relationships, the quicker we embrace it, the better.