The audio translator is a staple of science fiction. The dream to communicate in any language, talking to anyone and understanding everything, is a recurring vision of authors across the world.
Despite its unbelievable nature, the audio translator may not be a mere dream or mirage conjured by fiction writers. There have been important breakthroughs in the quest to achieve such an apparatus, which are worth exploring.
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This post was updated in June 2021
What is an Audio Translator?
An audio translator is basically a device able to translate speech. A user of an audio translator would be able to understand what someone is saying in another language and, likewise, be understood when speaking to that person. It is essentially a device which anyone can use to understand everything that is said in another language, and also to communicate in such language.
There are some characteristics worth mentioning. Speech translation, in an audio translator, means taking spoken phrases and rendering an immediate translation. Phrase translation, on the other hand, is when the translating system is only able to handle a set number of phrases, already in store in the memory bank.
The device has often been given different names such as a portable translator or pocket translator. In science fiction, it has often been called a universal translator.
The Audio Translator in Fiction
The audio translator or universal translator is common in fiction. Let’s take a look at the various times this device has been used.
First Contact (1945)
This novelette by writer Murray Leinster is considered the first instance where a universal translator was used in science fiction.
The story deals with an encounter in outer space, between an exploration ship called the ‘Llanvabon’ and an extraterrestrial ship. Neither ship, however, dares to leave for fear that the other will be able to track them down and eventually find them.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Universal translation is made possible in this famous series of books by using an audio translator called the ‘babel fish’. This device is essentially a small fish, inserted in the auditory canal which allows for universal translation across the galaxy.
The device is described in the first book like this: “The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it (…) and absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. Then it excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with the nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”
Science fiction writer William Gibson also uses this device in some of his works. A universal translator is used in ‘Neuromancer’ and also in ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ and ‘Count Zero’.
Set in the future, ‘Neuromancer’ follows the life of Henry Case, a computer hacker hired for a perilous job. The universal translators in use are basically devices called ‘microsofts’, small chips essentially plugged behind the user’s ears, which permit the understanding of the different languages.
Men in Black (1997)
This film also shows a universal audio translator. When Agent J (Will Smith) is recruited to the Men in Black, he is given a brief tour of the headquarters and shown the different gadgets in store. One such machine is a universal translator.
Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) states, while holding up a cylindrical metal tube with a small wire clip: “This is a Universal Translator, we’re not even supposed to have it and I’ll tell you why. Human thought is so primitive it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies.”
Limitations of an Audio Translator in Fiction
An audio translator would perhaps allow communication in most cases. However, it is not without limitations. There are several fiction portrayals of moments when an audio translator is of no real use.
The television series Futurama is a notable exception to the use and benefits of universal translators. In the year 3000, when the series takes place, everyone speaks English so there is no need for an audio translator.
Professor Farnsworth develops one such machine regardless, which is able to translate into French, already a dead language!
Funny as the situation is, Futurama does raise a valid point. A popular lingua franca, spoken by vast populations, would diminish the need for translation technology.
The problem with an audio translator is that it presupposes that communication will always be possible through listening and speaking. In some science fiction, such standard communication is impossible and so a universal audio translator is of no use.
One such film is ‘Arrival’, in which alien life forms communicate in the form of complex circular symbols with Louise Banks (Amy Adams). The film is based on ‘Story of Your Life’ a short story by writer Ted Chiang. Such a rendition of language and translation between extraterrestrial and human language is mesmerizing.
The extraterrestrial’s language uses a free word order and many instances of center-embedding (insertion of phrases within phrases). The writing of the extraterrestrial beings consists of chains of non-linear semagrams (akin to hieroglyphics), on a two-dimensional surface. They have no relation to speech or hearing as we know it. Their language, moreover, does not rely on human’s understanding of sequential causation (causality) but on the experiencing of events all at once (teleology).
As Louise becomes proficient in the extraterrestrial language, she begins to see her trains of thought are directionless and premises and conclusions are interchangeable. Eventually, she discovers that their language is also able to change the human linear conception of time, allowing her to see events that will happen in the future.
The Audio Translator in Reality
Although the concept of an audio translator sounds exclusively like a science fiction idea, there have been attempts at creating a real device. Some of these attempts are ongoing and varying degrees of progress have been achieved.
The U.S military has been continually developing an audio translator for use by troops. This system is essentially an audio translator in that it is able to take a source language, make it comprehensible, and then generate further communication in that language.
Together with SRI International, the military developed IraqComm, unveiled in 2006, which integrates three technologies: automatic speech recognition (ASR), machine translation (MT) and text-to-speech synthesis (TTS). The speaker basically speaks into the microphone and the system records the voice. The ASR processes such as audio and creates a display. The MT translates. Thereafter, the TTS module essentially ‘speaks’ the translation created.
The system has a number of features which allow for fast communication. It provides, for example, a menu of frequently used phrases.
The system, however, is still a long trek away from the audio translator of science fiction. Says a tech critic: “The system is a far cry from the universal translator of the “Star Trek” television series. It isn’t designed to handle subtle or wide-ranging discussions. Instead, IraqComm’s vocabulary of 40,000 words in English and 50,000 in Iraqi Arabic is designed to enable soldiers or medics to converse with civilians in a limited range of settings such as military checkpoints, door-to-door searches or first-aid situations.”
‘Pilot’, developed in 2017 by Waverly Labs, is a real audio translator seemingly straight out of science fiction. The concept is quite simple: A pair of earpieces that cancel out ambient noise and are able to capture what is being said and then send it to an app which is able to translate.
Initially, the ear buds will be available to translate in English, Spanish, French and Italian. The company plans to expand to German, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. The retail price is under $200 USD.
Google Pixel Buds
Google has made strides with their machine translation and is now making great progress in the creation of an audio translator. The idea is basically to use a pair of Google Pixel Buds, which, in sync with Google Translate, are able to translate speech.
The technology allows for around 12 languages at the moment though it’s best if the user sticks to simple sentences. The device was unveiled in 2017.
Skype has been making tremendous advances in the achievement of an audio translator. It is currently able to translate a select amount of languages, in real-time. Currently, this voice translator is able to translate conversations in English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese (Mandarin), Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Arabic, and Russian.
The key to the Skype Translator is that it uses machine learning and so keeps improving with use.
Jibbigo was a mobile audio translator app, which could be used offline too. The app eventually expanded to an offer of translation for over ten languages.
The idea was quite simple. A user would hold down a button, say a phrase and it would appear as text in both languages (the source language and the target language).
The app caused quite a stir. It appeared in “Popular Science – Future Of” by the Science Channel in 2010, as well as in the PBS Nova episode “The Smartest Machine on Earth” in 2011. Facebook bought the company in 2013.
The audio translator has been a dream of fiction authors for years. Even in fiction, however, the nature of certain languages would make the device potentially limited.
In real life, many companies and groups have been working towards achieving an efficient version of this apparatus. Geopolitical realities have pushed governments to create a translator for military use but civilian companies have also made progress in crafting this machine.
The future is bright for the audio translator. Only time, however, will tell if progress in the real world will match the speculation of authors and dreamers.
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