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May 23, 2009 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Published speculation first appeared in 1911, although others point to 1945 for its first modern phrasing. It originally looked like a flashlight on Star Trek. In Star Wars, it walked, talked, and was fluent "in over six million forms of communication." Many narratives have just abandoned the idea entirely.
Previous iterations have been quite limited in scope, but now it appears that the first learning, dynamic universal translator has finally arrived. And its futuristic aesthetic has been relegated to fiction in favor of a much more familiar object.

Popularized artifacts have included a radio, "a metal tube" (or was it?), a disc, a stylish lapel pin (@ 1m14s), and, of course, a fish. Many other inventions persist.

Oh, and when the universe was much smaller, it took a more prosaic form.
posted by hpliferaft (30 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Soon enough we will all speak Googlish.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:02 PM on May 23, 2009


I was working at my coffee shop last summer when these Korean tourists came in.
Guy pulls out this electronic gizmo, punches something in to it, reads what it says, and comes up and says something completely unintelligible, repeating it with increasing earnestness. After me saying I didn't understand a few times, he went back to the machine, pushed more buttons, and the machine said "Poker Cards". I then had to explain to them (by typing into the thing) that we were a coffee shop, no 'poker cards' and they should go to Rite Aid.

What really blows me away is how someone would be foolhardy enough to actually go traveling somewhere like the States relying on a little electronic gizmo like that instead of taking some English classes. Of course, given how all the tour buses packed with Asian tourists, they probably bought the trip as a package deal, are at the mercy of their tour guide/translator and have had everything arranged for so they don't have to talk with a local at all if they don't want to.

This voice recognition model sounds a little bit better than making strangers type into a tiny keyboard, but not much.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:05 PM on May 23, 2009


Hm. This comes a mere 12 years after my DARPA-funded CMU MS thesis "Optimizing a Language Translation System for Mobile Use" was published. Back then we were doing text-to-text English-to-Serbo-Croatian for obvious reasons. I remember that my test-input had phrases like "Put Down your weapons" and "Do not attack the refugees."
posted by deanc at 4:11 PM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


What really blows me away is how someone would be foolhardy enough to actually go traveling somewhere like the States relying on a little electronic gizmo like that instead of taking some English classes.

So no one should visit the US until they have mastered the English language? Really? Do you believe you should take classes in another language before you can visit a country where it is dominant? Perhaps this explains why so few Americans have passports.

The guy with the gizmo did pretty well: he made himself understood in spite of not speaking English. Unless you just have a hate-on for people who don't speak English and don't want to help them, I don't see the problem.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:23 PM on May 23, 2009 [9 favorites]


Yeah, I'm sure a usable universal translator is just five years away!

Just like it was in 1954.
posted by Super Hans at 4:23 PM on May 23, 2009


We already have universal translators. Too bad they're all gay.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:25 PM on May 23, 2009 [7 favorites]


What really blows me away is how someone would be foolhardy enough to actually go traveling somewhere like the States relying on a little electronic gizmo like that instead of taking some English classes.

Not to be snarky, but why foolhardy? What's special about the States in this scenario? Plus, how's your Korean? (Okay, the last comment is a little snarky, but come on, how could I not ask?)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:26 PM on May 23, 2009


FPP from English to Arabic to English, via google:


Speculation, first published in 1911, although others point to 1945 for the first modern version. It was originally like a flashlight on Star Trek. In Star Wars, walked, talked, and the good "in more than six million forms of communication." Many of the stories have just abandoned the idea completely.
The previous repeated to a very limited extent, but now it seems that the first learning, a dynamic global translator finally arrived. The future of the aesthetic imagination to come out in favor of more familiar faces.

posted by b1tr0t at 4:30 PM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


No hate-on-- I'm simply wondering why someone would want to limit all their communication with locals to typing into a pocket device. There's absolutely nothing special about the States besides the average American's monolinguality- Had I spoken Korean I would have jumped on the chance to practice with a native speaker.

You shouldn't have to take language classes to visit a country but you'll have a whole lot less trouble and will have a lot more appreciation for the culture- hence the reason I studied German for three years before I came to Austria (some Americans at the Uni don't speak any) and am now reasonably fluent.

I'm sure such devices are useful to fall back on (I still have my $4.50 English-German dictionary to look up mystery words in) but it's very limiting, you don't end up learning a foreign language and besides if it gets broken you're kind of screwed.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:50 PM on May 23, 2009


FPP from English to Arabic to English, via google:

That's actually pretty good.

But anyway, these things are not 'universal' translators, they're just able to translate between known languages.
posted by delmoi at 4:53 PM on May 23, 2009


When I was traveling in China I ran into tons of backpacking Westerners who hadn't bothered learning a word of Chinese before they came. They managed.

For what it's worth, when I went to Korea, I had learned some basic terms and phrases, but I'd definitely need my dictionary for the term "poker cards."
posted by pravit at 5:09 PM on May 23, 2009


> You shouldn't have to take language classes to visit a country but you'll have a whole lot less trouble and will have a lot more appreciation for the culture

Dude you are SO screwed if your classmates invite you to vacation with them in Greece.
posted by ardgedee at 6:08 PM on May 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dude you are SO screwed if your classmates invite you to vacation with them in Greece.

What? You think Greek is hard? It's Indo-European, so the structure and vocabulary will be familiar, the grammar is straightforward, and if you can handle speaking Spanish, your Greek pronunciation will be at least semi-passable.

Don't tell me you're intimidated by the fact that the alphabet is different.

Now, Hungarian or Finnish: those are hard languages.
posted by deanc at 6:41 PM on May 23, 2009


Dude you are SO screwed if your classmates invite you to vacation with them in Greece.

Wordplay!
posted by rokusan at 7:36 PM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


I THINK THIS.
THIS.
IS. A. GOOD. THING. WE MAKE. MANY.
MANY.
KINDS. OF TALK. GOOD. WITH THIS.
WHERE. WOMEN. OF PROMISCUOUS. FOR MONEY. BOOM BOOM.

Or does it treat speaking loudly and haltingly as a bug rather than a feature?
posted by Smedleyman at 8:53 PM on May 23, 2009


One reason a person might not want to take ESL classes before traveling: cost and effort. Learning even the basics of a language is a pretty high bar to cross just to take a 2-4 week vacation to see the sights.

And if you like to travel to various countries around the world, it would be downright prohibitive.
posted by moonbiter at 12:49 AM on May 24, 2009


The last time I saw Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind , there was a pretty great one which involved both Google and Yahoo's translator services, where there were two letters, where they were written in english, and then auto-translated into a different language via Yahoo to be sent to its actual recipient, and then auto-translated back into english via Google so we, the audience, could 'understand' it. There is a great amount of comedic value in these things, especially if you're making dick jokes.


That's a long way of saying that I hope they make language-independant dick jokes with this thing.

"Is that a banana in your pants pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
"당신의 바지 주머니에 바나나, 또는 당신은 그냥 날보고 행복해하는 그런 가요?"
"A është ky një banane në pantallona xhepin tuaj, ose po qe sapo e lumtur për të parë mua?"
"¿Es que un plátano en el bolsillo de tus pantalones, o son sólo felices de verme?"
"זה בננה בכיס המכנסיים שלך, או שאתה סתם שמח לראות אותי?"
“这是香蕉在你的裤子口袋里,或者仅仅是高兴地看到我吗? ”
"Je li to banana u vašem džepu hlača, ili ste jednostavno sretni da me vidjeti?"
"あなたのズボンポケットにバナナのか、私に会いに満足しているだけなのか? "
"E 'una banana nella vostra tasca pantaloni, o siete solo felice di vedermi?"
"Заключается в том, что банан в вашем кармане брюк, или вы просто рады меня видеть?"
etc.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 12:56 AM on May 24, 2009


language-independent, too.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 12:56 AM on May 24, 2009


I came here for the inevitable "hovercraft full of eels" joke, and I'm disappointed.
posted by DreamerFi at 1:11 AM on May 24, 2009


Back when I was a-wander, I rarely spoke more than a smattering of phrasebookish in most of the 40 or 50 countries I visited.

Good will, body language, a pocketable book or device and copious lashings of alcohol are more than enough to get along.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:27 AM on May 24, 2009


The trouble with speaking a second language well is then people expect you to hear it equally well. And those two things are neither equal nor same, nor directly related. I always ask if someone speaks English, it is just easier. I can ask for what I want in German, but the answer is most likely going to fly over my head. Part of my problem is I especially like being able to say what I can with very correct pronunciation, and I'm adept at that. Hearing is problematic. Oh, I don't hear English all that good either, and my mother-in-law assures me my hearing is fine (she tested it).
posted by Goofyy at 6:33 AM on May 24, 2009


The trouble with speaking a second language well is then people expect you to hear it equally well.

I ran into this problem in France, because apparently my pronunciation is very good and I was mistaken for a fluent speaker (interestingly, I was almost never pegged as American). So I'd get a rapid-fire response, and I'd have to humble myself and ask them to speak slowly. We often ended up resorting to pointing and gesturing. I learned to speak haltingly just so that they would know to answer in English (if they could - it was miserable when French was their second language, because understanding French with a Greek accent was way beyond my capabilities).
posted by desjardins at 7:57 AM on May 24, 2009


Perhaps this explains why so few Americans have passports.

All cultural judgments aside, we haven't needed them.

Up until two years ago we were able to fly to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean with no passport. We can still travel by land or sea to those places without one, but beginning June '09 we will be required to use passports for all travel outside the country.

Overseas travel is expensive enough that, generally speaking, most American families don't do it.
posted by Fleebnork at 9:13 AM on May 24, 2009


We can still travel by land or sea to those places without one

This won't be true in a few days. Mexico link.
posted by desjardins at 9:30 AM on May 24, 2009


That's why the second half of my sentence said:

but beginning June '09 we will be required to use passports for all travel outside the country.
posted by Fleebnork at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2009


argh, sorry. I can't even blame that one on lack of caffeine.
posted by desjardins at 2:07 PM on May 24, 2009


No worries. I've put my e-foot in my e-mouth plenty of times.
posted by Fleebnork at 6:09 PM on May 24, 2009


You shouldn't have to take language classes to visit a country but you'll have a whole lot less trouble and will have a lot more appreciation for the culture

Not everyone necessarily travels in order to appreciate or take in the culture. I'm sure there are some people who visit the U.S. in spite of it.

Which is fine by me, as long as they're not impolite about it; if tourists want to come, see the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert or Yellowstone or whatever, I can't really fault that. It's a very different kind of travel from cultural tourism, but it's nothing new and I'm sure quite popular. Lots of Americans go all over the world with no real interest in interacting with the locals; they just want to see the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal or whatever and get back to a place that serves regular food. I'm not defending it, but there's no reason why people from other countries should feel differently when they come here.

Better electronic translators might make travel like that more common, because people with little interest in learning a second language (who previously would have been put off at the idea of going to a mono-lingual area) might now be willing to give it a shot, but I don't think it's really a bad thing. At least with a translator there's a chance for interaction, even if it's facile and consists mostly of pointing and smiling at each other; if someone just doesn't travel there's not even the chance for that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:50 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


And at least the Asian tourists bother to bring a translation device or a dictionary.
I saw a very stereotypical American a while back in a wine shop where the shopkeeper simply didn't speak English. The American kept on talking at the guy in English (he was mad about something) louder and louder until he was shouting. Finally a lady in the shop told him she would translate for him if he'd just shut up.

Kadin2048: "Not everyone necessarily travels in order to appreciate or take in the culture. I'm sure there are some people who visit the U.S. in spite of it."

Ha! You speak the truth. It's going to take generations for Americans to fix their reputation.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:55 AM on May 26, 2009


Machine translation brings to mind lost in translation, which is usually good for a laugh, for me.

"It's the night-time sniffling, sneezing, coughing, achy, stuffy head, fever, so-you-can rest medicine," becomes "It' S the night, scent in, for I sneeze, the cough, painful and title of the soffocamento, fever, thus--the medicine can be firm."
posted by notashroom at 10:40 AM on May 26, 2009


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