Are you watching Star Trek: Picard? If not, you should. It continues the now-classic vision of a better future where we can communicate fluently with many alien races. But, how close are we to actually doing that fluently amongst ourselves? Translation earbuds purport to provide an easy fix to this age-old problem. But has reality caught up to the hype?

There’s going to be both a long and a short answer to that question. The short answer is no. If you need actual live translation for anything other than tourism or simple purposes, translation earbuds are not a good choice. Simply put, the hype has grown to such proportions that people don’t know about the challenges of machine translation. There are so many setbacks, complications, and flat-out mysteries that it’d be hard to pick a place to start.

And that’s going to be the purpose of this article. I’ll let you know how these earbuds work, what their actual uses are, where they work, and where they don’t. I’ll also give you a few pointers on the state of machine translation right now. That’ll help you manage your expectations more when some dishonest salesman talks about how the future has already arrived. Mind you, we live in an age of rapid technological innovation, and no one’s arguing against that. What I will do is openly talk about how far we’ve come, but also how much we’ve left to go.

Translation Earbuds for content localization

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This post has been updated in October 2021.

Translation: what is it?

Translation entails conveying the meaning from one language into another in written form. The structure of translation works as follows:

  • The translator evaluates the original document or text in the source language.
  • They then use their linguistic abilities to translate the document int the target language.
  • They proofread or edit the translation to confirm that it carries the intended meaning and follows grammatical rules.
  • If necessary, they may have to provide proof or certification of some sort, like an apostille seal.
  • Some clients will require the text to be back-translated for additional confirmation of accuracy. This is especially prevalent in the medical or tech industries.

A lot of the content we consume daily is translated. Foreign movies, products, films, video games, TV shows; they all come alive through the magic of translation. It’s what helps break down barriers between nations and individuals. It allows us to access content from all across the globe as if it had been made right in our backyard. It’s what’s also allowed so much English content available throughout the world. The power of subbing and dubbing has democratized access to content at unprecedented rates. And things are only going to pick up from here!

Now that you know a bit more about translation, we’re ready to move on to a point more pertinent to translation earbuds.

Translation earbuds, or simultaneous interpretation earbuds?

“What?”, I hear you asking. The attentive reader will have caught a keyword in my explanation of what translation is: written. So, what about translating live speech in a real-time setting? That gets trickier, doesn’t it? And it’s also got everything to do with translation earbuds and their marketplace.

Live translation is called interpretation, and it’s a completely different profession, with its own set of challenges!

Interpretation requires an interpreter to have limited exposure to what’s being said. They can’t sit at their desk with a cup of coffee and a stack of dictionaries and online tools. They have to render intelligible meaning right then and there. Usually, the demands of the jobs are such that they can’t continue doing it for more than a couple hours straight. That’s why conference interpreters generally take turns to avoid burnout and costly mistakes.

There are also several types of interpretation styles available, depending on needs.

Simultaneous Interpretation

This is also referred to as “U.N. Style” interpretation. Have you ever seen a live political conference? It’s very likely you’ve heard the voice of a simultaneous interpreter speaking over some foreign political leader’s voice. This type of interpretation entails being able to listen to what the speaker is saying while trying to relay the content of their words at the same time. It takes a lot of training to be able to do this, so it’s no wonder it’s an extremely well-paid profession.

Consecutive interpretation

This type of interpretation allows breaks to relay the translated content. So, a person speaks for a certain amount of time, and they either stop themselves or are stopped by the interpreter. Then, the interpreter conveys the meaning, and the original speaker moves on.

Whispering interpretation (also called ‘chuchotage’)

You may have seen this in movies, especially those dealing with espionage or intrigue. It’s when the interpreter whispers the translation to only one person, keeping the meaning just between the two of them.

Is ‘translation earbuds’ a misnomer, then?

If you came to that conclusion yourself: good job! That is absolutely the case! What translation earbuds say they do, then, is provide a live, automatic simultaneous interpretation.

But, is that all there is to it? Are these earbuds putting simultaneous translators out of business? Well, answer me this one question: have you seen any big events where they are used? Even if Google were hosting a conference right now, they’d be tapping into the services of simultaneous interpreters. Any company worth their salt is employing interpreters to liaise whenever complex, high-demand multi-language situations arise.

Is this because companies are being unduly stubborn, clutching onto old ways and refusing to let go of the past? Or because translation earbuds are a ‘not quite there’ technology that wouldn’t be used in a serious setting? I don’t want to be guilty of answering the question for you, but you can probably tell what I think.

If anyone is telling you that you’ll be using translation earbuds to simultaneously interpret mission-critical content, they’re lying. And not just that, they’re lying in a way that could hurt your organization, your brand, your objectives, and your reputation. A word to the wise: don’t believe the hype.

Translation Earbuds for language localization

But, that doesn’t mean that translation earbuds are trash! Quite the contrary, they can get you out of a jam and help you out of sticky language situations when you’re traveling. While they certainly can and will have some hiccups, they can be great for interpreting simple things. Need directions to a place, or don’t know what something in a  menu means? Do you need to buy something at a grocery store or engage in very slow, casual conversation? They can absolutely give you a leg up!

How do translation earbuds work, anyway?

They leverage the power of machine translation and deep learning systems. If you don’t know what those are, don’t worry! While they sound like they’re right out of a sci-fi movie, they’re not advanced enough to scare anyone yet!

Deep Learning Systems are systems programmed to fulfill a certain objective. These algorithms then go about the task in a way that attempts to mirror the way humans do it. Generally, we’re talking about multi-billion-dollar supercomputer systems that use architecture based on neural networks. They throw themselves at their programmed objective over and over. Thus, they ‘learn’ how to complete a task in efficient ways. While translation requires a certain understanding that is beyond even the most advanced machine, that doesn’t make them useless!

In fact, deep learning systems and neural networks have been used to find creative solutions to problems. In the future, they may even assist humans with translation duties, so they could become a powerful potential ally! As for replacing them, I believe that’s far, far into the future, and we’ll find ways to adapt to changes that come our way.

Machine Translation, then, uses the power of what’s been learned through these deep learning AI systems and applies it to the translation field. That’s the software that’s being run by these translation earbuds. And, while the software is being improved upon continuously, with buckets of money being thrown at the problem, earbuds are not ready for serious conditions yet. I estimate we’re a long way off from that being the case, too!

Still, if you’re willing to take a look at how translation earbuds work and don’t mind a little hype-filled marketing talk, have a look!

As you can see, the WT2 plus translation earbuds work as a sort of consecutive interpretation system. Different earbuds work differently!

So, what are my options if I need a translator or interpreter?

If you need a conference interpreter, my recommendation would be to go straight to an agency. You need somebody whose skills have been vetted, and who has shown to know their stuff consistently. Especially when it comes to such a high-level, high-demand profession, you’re going to want to go with an accredited pro.

If you’re traveling and need help with daily routine, it’s OK to maybe give translation earbuds a try. But remember that they’re not going to solve all your problems, and it’s not going to feel like Star Trek! If you’re thinking that we’re already in the era of free, easy communication between different languages, you’ve got another thing coming!

If what you need is more along the lines of real translation, and not interpretation, even better! Just go for a translation-centric hub with a curated list of pros. Rates are going to be a little higher than on some freelancing platforms, but a native-language staff will see that translations are done correctly. Revisions are also included, and turnaround is generally very fast!

Final thoughts

I hope I’ve given you an adequate tour of why translation earbuds are still not ready for primetime deployment. Sure, they’re a nifty technology to have around, no one’s arguing about that! I’ll probably take them with me on an upcoming trip to Berlin, just because I hardly speak a word of Deutsche! But, just because they can get me out of a bind doesn’t mean I would try to use them in a high-level company meeting, and neither should you!

Find the right translator for you today at Bunny Studio!

So, since I believe forearmed is forearmed, I hope I’ve suitable given you a heads up to help manage your expectations!