Bill Gates had a vision of the future, set out in his 1995 tome, “The Road Ahead” (and later in “Business @ The Speed of Thought”) which included computers performing seamless speech and handwriting recognition, and language understanding (even to the extent of lip reading). Many of his predictions have come true yet it’s easy to forget what the world was like before the advent of technology we now take for granted.
In the not-too distant future, we may have the ability, babel fish-like, to automatically hear in our own language, regardless of what is spoken. Institutions like the EU have thousands of translators and interpreters, who provide written, spoken and signed interpretation between different languages. There are rigorous checks in place when trying to get work in these areas (though not everywhere), as we all know what can happen when wrong grammar is used, the words are unsuitable, or punctuation is in the incorrect place.
Computerised language translation has come a long way, and though it may still a way off replacing real translators, it’s good enough for most people to get the gist of a foreign document or website – so while you might not rely on it to turn a contract from French to English, it’s fine to figure out what’s on a menu or read some instructions.
There are plenty of mobile apps and websites like Bing Translator, and the cloud-powered translation service is built-into Word (just right-click and Translate on any text).
Microsoft Research Asia recently won a competition for the best machine translation between a host of languages, and the growing fidelity of AI models is helping to improve the quality – a year previously, the Chinese-English translation was adjudged to be at human conversation level already, so it might not be too long before machine translation gets good enough that it’s hard to tell the difference between that and humans.
A practical tip for users of the new Chromium-based “Edge Dev” browser; you can enable on-the-fly webpage translation by going to edge://flags/, search for trans to find the translation flag, then switch it on and restart the browser. It is an experimental feature, technically, so YMMV for now.
Now, when you browse to a foreign-language site, you’ll be prompted if you’d like to translate (or you can invoke the function using the Bing Translator icon to the right of the address in the toolbar).
Legacy Edge users can install the Translator extension.
As they say in translation circles, Yandelvayasna grldenwi stravenka!