Mass Translation

Vivek’s presentation about scanning and translating historic documents got me thinking about just how far we can go with translating languages. Coming to the United States from Israel at the age of 7, I sat in my second grade classroom and stared blankly at the wall because I couldn’t understand a single word of what was being spoken around me. This was incredibly difficult and frustrating for me as a little kid in elementary school, and it would be interesting to see how technology can make transitioning to a new language easier. What if I had an iPad on my desk that was constantly listening to the world around me, used voice recognition software to pick up what was being said, and then translated it to Hebrew. Similarly, I could speak to it in Hebrew, and it could give me the English translation so I could participate in class.

This method seems to have one big issue. Although this would work great for individual cases, I wonder how effective it would have been in actually helping me learn the English language. If all I had to do was wait for my iPad to translate everything to Hebrew, would I pay enough attention to my surroundings to actually pick up the English? By far the best way to pick up a new language is to simply observe your surroundings, so I think it could be detrimental to the learning process if I could just wait for a translation to appear for me. This issue appears to be a little too large to overcome, so it makes me think that mass translation may not be the best solution for someone who is trying to learn a new language. However, I do think it would have been an enormous benefit to have easy access to some translating tool, especially from Hebrew to English. This would have allowed me to communicate with my classmates and my teachers, and it would have helped me learn English as well. Now that this technology is so much easier to access than it was 13 years ago, I would love to see people that were put in my situation have the ability to use some sort of translation.

Even though mass translation has pretty clear drawbacks for someone trying to transition to a new language, it still has very practical smaller scale uses. For someone who is just visiting a new country, a tool such as this could make the experience much more enjoyable. Someone in this situation would not be looking to learn the language, they just to be able to understand what is happening around them while they are visiting a new place. This could significantly improve foreign travel. My younger sister does not know any Hebrew, so any time we go visit Israel she spends the entire trip only understanding the things people say in English. I know she would love to have a way to understand all of the Hebrew around her. This would also help her appreciate the country more, as she would be able to gain a much better understanding of the culture and society if she could understand more than just what we translate for her.

Mass translation should not be difficult to create. Speech recognition is already very good, as it is able to recognize enough to be understandable. Translation likely still needs some improvement before it can be implemented on such a large scale. Most translators still just translate phrases word for word, and do not have any way of capturing the true meaning of the phrase. This causes many grammatical mistakes and figures of speech often get confused. If translation could be made a little more sophisticated, its widespread use could greatly benefit people placed in foreign settings.

-Almog

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