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One Step Toward a Babel Fish: Real-Time Voice Translation For Phones

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the you-said-what? dept.

Japan 131

the_newsbeagle writes "Douglas Adams's fictional Babel fish, which lived in the brain and could translate any language in the universe, was so incredibly useful that it simultaneously proved and disproved the existence of God. This real-time translation app for mobile phones, offered by the Japanese telecom company NTT DoCoMo, isn't going to freak out theologians any time soon. The company admits it has lots of work to do to improve translation accuracy, and it can currently only translate between Japanese and three languages: English, Korean, and Mandarin. But by allowing phone calls to pierce the language barrier, we just might have taken a step toward the universe that Adams envisioned: one where open communication between people of different cultures leads to an onslaught of terrible bloody warfare."

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Sounds like a step backwards to me (5, Insightful)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 2 years ago | (#41999049)

When machines start translating languages on the fly, people will stop learning other languages and that's a bad thing.

Right now, English is the de-facto lingua franca of the world, because peoples need to talk to each other for business purposes. I reckon that need alone goes a long way to (mostly) maintain world peace, because when someone learns a foreign language, they're also exposed to a foreign culture. Machine translators don't expose those who use them to other cultures.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (5, Insightful)

AchilleTalon (540925) | about 2 years ago | (#41999089)

Well, the only problem is everyone has to learn English and its culture, but no one from English speaking countries really need to learn others languages and cultures. So, it's not exactly a good thing neither.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (5, Funny)

Cryacin (657549) | about 2 years ago | (#41999373)

No, they don't need to learn other languages. THEY JUST NEED TO SPEAK ENGLISH LOUDER!!!

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999613)

You can learn culture independently of language.

I've an interest in several cultures but have no desire to learn their languages.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (2)

chaos_technique (1191999) | about 2 years ago | (#41999835)

Cant see how. Or very incompletely. Have you got any language besides English? (not trolling, I'm trying to see if your comment is biased in a way or another)

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (3, Insightful)

Joce640k (829181) | about 2 years ago | (#41999995)

Cant see how.

Agree. In any pair of languages there's a lot of words/phrases which simply can't be translated without cultural references.

This is where machines can't help (in fact they'll probably make things worse). Automatic translation is a noble goal but I don't think it can ever be a substitute for the real thing where there's a big difference in culture.

It can work for limited cases of course: eg. The language needed for ordering 10,000 widgets by next Tuesday should be machine-translatable. OTOH the small-talk most salesmen engage in before the sale will probably lead to global warfare if attempted.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (2)

Eponymous Hero (2090636) | about 2 years ago | (#42001323)

also agree. try jewish and israeli culture. there are words and phrases in hebrew that have no translation to anything in english. this ac is hopelessly clueless. also, what kind of interest do you think you have in a culture when you don't care to learn the language? if you love japanese culture you don't just read manga and play jrpgs.

my sister loves the japanese culture and besides learning to draw anime she took kendo sword fighting classes, japanese history classes, learned to speak japanese (and speaks it around her house, even though she knows you can't understand her), learned to write kanji and katakana, and is saving up for a trip to visit. she has a real interest, not a fleeting ADD version of "ooh shiny culture, what's tha-- oooh shiny culture over here too"

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

slartibartfastatp (613727) | about 2 years ago | (#42000287)

So I think you'll never fully appreciate the culture.

For instance, you can't really understand the japanese language different modes unless you learn the social context they're expected to be used. And vice-versa.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42000375)

But if you aren't Japanese, you likely will never understand all the social nuances anyway.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

wmac1 (2478314) | about 2 years ago | (#42000249)

Why everyone needs to learn English? If there is a decent real time translator, it can translate their language to English. For books and publications assuming there is a really good translator, it should not be a problem.

I also dislike that. I know 7-8 languages (fluent in 4 of them) and it has been a hobby and interest for me to learn languages.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

Alex Belits (437) | about 2 years ago | (#42001207)

Why everyone needs to learn English? If there is a decent real time translator, it can translate their language to English. For books and publications assuming there is a really good translator, it should not be a problem.

And they will all sount like retards to English speakers because most translators are not smarter than authors they are translating. With machine translation it's even worse.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42001969)

"So, it's not exactly a good thing neither."
Correction, "So,it's not exactly a good thing EITHER."

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999115)

If I can talk to you in any language I am more likely to interact with you more and learn from you. Therefore I feel that your claim could be selectively negative and not necessaries a reflection of what may happen. I may even learn other languages faster if I can interact without the initial awkwardness that learning initially imposes on interactions.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999121)

I disagree. It was because I was able to access content in my native language that I was more interested in learning about the culture of other countries. The easier it is to communicate with foreign people, the easier it is to learn about their culture. I really dislike the narrow-minded view that a nation's culture is only accessible through its native language. (I live in Quebec)

15 years ago, I saw Akira in English. Throughout the years, I saw more Japanese animations, I read manga, I read documentaries, I learned some of the words and some of the characters. I also read a little about the history. I watched documentaries, etc. All of these things, all in English, they made a foreign culture more accessible to me, they allowed me to understand Japan a little better even if I couldn't speak the language.

If one day I can converse with someone that speaks a foreign language and share with him or her our culture without having language be a barrier, that would be very good. Isn't that exactly what Star Trek showed us? The universal translator broke down the barrier of language, so that different species could share their own culture more easily, more freely.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999123)

I reckon that need alone goes a long way to (mostly) maintain world peace, because when someone learns a foreign language, they're also exposed to a foreign culture.

Hogwash. Wars exist because they serve someone's interests (be it to sell weapons, to expand borders or to keep the people occupied). Although it's preferable to know the enemy's culture it isn't necessary.

Would you feel the same way if the lingua franca were some dialect of Mandarin instead of English?

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (2)

phantomfive (622387) | about 2 years ago | (#41999275)

Hogwash. Wars exist because they serve someone's interests (be it to sell weapons, to expand borders or to keep the people occupied).

Yes, but if you understand each other's culture, you can more often find a way to meet everyone's interests without starting a war.

I'll give you an example I heard from Bob Woodward....During the Falkland's war, Argentina was more aggressive than they should have been, in part because the people thought America would be on their side (for various reasons). However, he met some people who had lived as foreign exchange students in America, and those people realized America would not help Argentina. If more people had realized that, Argentina might have avoided a pointless war.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (3, Interesting)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 2 years ago | (#41999155)

When machines start translating languages on the fly, people will stop learning other languages and that's a bad thing.

Good machine translation is a big help when learning a foreign language, so this might encourage more people to give it a try. I use Chrome's speech-to-text to practice speaking Mandarin. It is not a complete substitute for an actual Mandarin speaking human, but a human isn't always available. Maybe the technology in TFA could be adapted to language learners, and let them know when their pronunciation is a little off, and guide them toward clearer expressions.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

mjwx (966435) | about 2 years ago | (#41999179)

I think this is what is going to work as well as they think is unlikely. If you try to translate your post from English to Japanese and back again, just for a while, we had a machine translation of the text.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (2)

Cryacin (657549) | about 2 years ago | (#41999397)

Using google translate: This paragraph is written in English, translated to Japanese and back to English to illustrate the previous post This translated into a paragraph, in order to explain the previous articles that have been written in English, Japanese and back to English. You know what? Given enough text, I still would find the result of the English retranslation more useful than a human written version of the Japanese.

Flip side (1)

Namarrgon (105036) | about 2 years ago | (#41999187)

Right now, you have to learn another language if you want exposure to people from foreign cultures. This will lower that barrier.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

JanneM (7445) | about 2 years ago | (#41999211)

So... By that logic native English speakers are the cause of most breaches of world peace, and should therefore all be forced to learn and use a second language?

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#41999277)

Learning another language is anyway a good idea. It gives you the idea what a non-English speaker goes through to learn English.

Living in Hong Kong I often talk to Chinese about them speaking English. Many are worried that they make mistakes when they talk in English to foreigners - especially native speakers (from e.g. UK, US, Australia, etc).

So then I usually tell them not to worry, for the simple reason that they themselves are already much better with their languages than the English speaker. They are Chinese, speaking often not only Cantonese but also Mandarin, and of course English. These native English foreigners usually speak only English. So even if their English is not perfect, it is surely way better than the Chinese of that foreigner. So that foreigner should be happy that they bothered to learn English - they didn't bother to learn another language.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

Kahlandad (1999936) | about 2 years ago | (#41999421)

So English speakers should learn to speak another language so that they can learn what it's like to learn to speak another language... that's sound logic if I've ever heard it.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (2)

OolimPhon (1120895) | about 2 years ago | (#41999987)

One of the reasons English has become a world language is that it is relatively easy to make yourself understood even if you speak it badly.

For some bizarre reason it doesn't seem to matter what your subset of the language is or how bad your accent is, it is usually possible to find enough common words to get your point across.

Whether this is because of the multiple language base, the almost non-existant grammar (as compared, say, to Latin) or the constant borrowing from other languages I don't know, but it works.

Try that in another language, be it French, German, Russian, Arabic or Mandarin and you'll find it much harder to make your point unless you can conform quite closely to your listener's grammar and accent. From personal experience your listener will let you get half a sentence out then prompt you to switch to English!

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#42001285)

Over the past decade I've learned quite some Cantonese (said to be much harder to learn than Mandarin, except Cantonese is the local language here). The tones are of course the hardest part for us westerners: it's something we don't use that way. Different tone = different meaning, possibly opposite, totally different, or slightly different (e.g. the difference between "today" and "tomorrow" is just the tone). Yet grammar is dead easy, and getting a (simple) message across usually works.

It is more like that foreign language speakers are so totally used to English speakers not being able to speak their language, that they reply in English. And, usually, in the vast majority of the cases the English of the non-English speaker is better than the foreign language skills of the English speaker. It happens to me all the time. I ask a question to say a market vendor in Cantonese, get answer in (often really poor) English.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

stephanruby (542433) | about 2 years ago | (#41999323)

...because when someone learns a foreign language, they're also exposed to a foreign culture.

Personally, I doubt I'd be exposing myself to Korean culture if I didn't have access to almost real-time human translations of Korean movies and TV dramas. [viki.com]

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (5, Insightful)

citizenr (871508) | about 2 years ago | (#41999383)

When machines start translating languages on the fly, people will stop learning other languages and that's a bad thing.

I TOTALLY AGREE, just like written word made humans stop remembering things!

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (4, Interesting)

Mashiki (184564) | about 2 years ago | (#41999443)

When machines start translating languages on the fly, people will stop learning other languages and that's a bad thing.

That's not really true. I can speak English, German, a good bit of Japanese( know about 40% of the syntax). But it'll probably take me another 3 years or so to learn it. My uncle who travels to Japan regularly for work can't grasp it, can't wrap his head around it. . He struggled with english. Though his job requires him to be able to travel all around the world fixing million dollar machinery, setting it up, tearing it down and doing repairs.

Luckily in every place he's been, people have been exceptionally accommodating of this, especially in places where no one speaks english. Even if he could learn the language of wherever he was going, there's no way he'd be able to learn and grasp 90+ languages. And while english is the defacto business language(and it's taught pretty much everywhere) that doesn't stop cultural cross-communication issues either.

Machine language translations are a good way to allow people to talk, for those that can't, or unable to grasp another language. And it does get harder as you get older, and not everyone is lucky enough to live in a multilingual country or city-state like Singapore.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#42001807)

And it does get harder as you get older, and not everyone is lucky enough to live in a multilingual country or city-state like Singapore.

Interestingly I have the exact opposite experience.

In my early 30s I started learning Cantonese seriously, considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.

Yet I found it easier, and learned much faster, than the English, German and French that I learned back in secondary school (I'm a Dutch native so English and particularly German are relatively easy).

Reason is of course not age, it's interest. Living in a place where the whole world around you speaks Cantonese is a great motivator. And having mastered another foreign language (primarily English) helps, too: it is known that bilingual people can pick up a third language much easier than a monolingual can pick up a second. Having experience with the mere concept of another language is key here.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

Askmum (1038780) | about 2 years ago | (#41999497)

When machines start translating languages on the fly, people will stop learning other languages and that's a bad thing.

Right now, English is the de-facto lingua franca of the world, because peoples need to talk to each other for business purposes. I reckon that need alone goes a long way to (mostly) maintain world peace, because when someone learns a foreign language, they're also exposed to a foreign culture. Machine translators don't expose those who use them to other cultures.

Why not? If I go to China, I can't communicate. So my exposure to the culture is minimal, it's limited to what I see. When I understand what people are saying, I get a lot more cultural information. And then I'm not even talking about apprehension to go to a country I don't know the language for.

But it does make me wonder. Babelfish, Star Trek universal translator: how do these things cope with languages that don't have the same syntax? "Alea iacta est". That's a bit hard to translate on the fly. You'll need the whole sencente before you can translate it.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999647)

Actually - a good live translating tech might save a few languages and stop us from changing into a boring only-english-speaking world.

Re:Sounds like a dangerous step to me (1)

hcs_$reboot (1536101) | about 2 years ago | (#41999679)

Well if the translating machine works as "well" as Google Translate, the other listening party may feel insulted at times!

Re:Sounds like a dangerous step to me (1)

fatphil (181876) | about 2 years ago | (#42000201)

In my experience, about 90% of the time I'm left confused. The output is almost always meaningless. For it to be coherently insulting would require a bizarre fluke of clarity.

As a concrete example, Google will translate the local "no" word, which has no alternative meanings, into "yes", "no", and "maybe". Bizarrely, it usually also wants to translate "Estonia" or "Finland" into "England". This is so broken that it's worse than useless. Google should be ashamed of it.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999713)

Right, you can just foresee the cultural impact of instant translation with great accuracy. It is inconceivable that due to the increased communication, peoples will learn more about one another.

Re: English is the de-facto lingua franca of the.. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999773)

> English is the de-facto lingua franca of the world

Haha, you obviously haven't worked in Japan.
Even when I am working at a US or German based multinational, this is Japan, the employees are Japanese, and by god, everything will be done in Japanese.
I don't see anything wrong with this, however - because it's the same as the US branch of a French company I worked at where everyone wanted to do everything in English.

Either way, the people had the will and the power to use their local language.
Countries that are smaller or less powerful in other ways are more likely to gratefully take any work and learn the language the parent company wants - at least the elite in each company.

For what it's worth, right now I am working for a Japanese communicating with people in US, UK, China, and Korea. We use English for US and UK, and Japanese for Chinese and Korea. (Some of the Chinese know English, the Koreans definitely prefer to use Japanese).

In short, English (or any other language) can only be truly international if every country agrees to it, and Japan has as a country flatly rejected that notion.
You might say "Well fine, then you can't play at our party then", but Japan plays at the party as much as it wants to.

I have also dealt with quite a few people in Germany who didn't know English (or Japanese), so we had to go through double-interpretation to talk to them.

The US and UK can't tell everyone to learn English anymore than Japan can make everyone learn Japanese.

Also, if you consider English the international language now - what about in 50 years? 100? I mean "Lingua Franca" means FRENCH, right? I thought that used to be the international language.

Re: English is the de-facto lingua franca of the.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999961)

> Also, if you consider English the international language now - what about in 50 years? 100?

Exactly. Also changes in that area are slow. There are countries already giving basic Mandarin courses to students (Panama, I've read) and it's increasingly easier to find Mandarin courses over here (Brazil). Given the current political stance of China, that may somewhat too early, but then... changes happen.

> I mean "Lingua Franca" means FRENCH, right? I thought that used to be the international language.

Lingua Franca, if I recall Webster's definition, referred to a particular mix of French, Portuguese, Spanish and other languages used throughout the Mediterranean as a common, international language (so it was not exactly French).

The expression "Lingua Franca" seems itself to be Latin and is almost exactly the same in Portuguese (my native language, in which "Lingua" has an acute sign over the "i"). I believe it means "Free Language" with "free" in this context having to do with liberty (not cost). "Franca" works both ways, just like "free".
 

Re: English is the de-facto lingua franca of the.. (1)

Shadow99_1 (86250) | about 2 years ago | (#42000577)

Um you do realize that Japanese schools teach english right? Most Japanese people have at least spent 3 years (sometimes 6) learning english before they even get to the college level. Now most learn from other Japanese people so their accent sucks (hence the term 'engrish'), but most of the people who have gone through Japanese schools since the 50's have some concept of english...

Now obviously in atypical workday where everyone is natively similar I'd expect them to speak Japanese rather than bad english at each other, but you seem to be suggesting that the Japanese don't want to learn english... Yet they all do (how much they remember is a different story).

Re: English is the de-facto lingua franca of the.. (1)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#42001835)

That they are taught it in school doesn't mean they WANT to learn it. And as you say, most of them will never use English out of school. And then it's really quickly forgotten - a foreign language you must continue to use or you lose it.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

leuk_he (194174) | about 2 years ago | (#41999845)

Right now, English is the de-facto lingua franca of the world, ...
wait.... what? First of all..
"de-facto lingua franca" does not pass my spell check. Second, it might be your working language in your reference, but in other area's there might be other languages more appropriate . Spanish and Portuguese might be an example of this.

If your options are between sign language and automated translation i pick automated translation.

And learning the other language is not always a advantage. I learned German and French at school, but when doing business with German or French people i often default to engrish(!) to level the playing field since my French is not good enough to play games with the language.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

Alioth (221270) | about 2 years ago | (#41999903)

That'll be a long way off. Until machines have sufficient AI to understand context well, machine translation (even good machine translation) will be clumsy. You'll speak, your translator will have to listen to the whole sentence (due to things like word ordering differences between different languages, it can't really start to translate halfway through in many cases), then repeat what you said to the other person. He speaks and the process repeats. The conversation goes at a fraction of the speed of even someone who has learned the other person's language to even just intermediate level. (Human translators, for example in the UN or EU parliament, can start translating much sooner because they understand the context and will know where a sentence is going long before it's complete. Indeed, I have a lot of respect for these translators. Earlier in the year I was at Euskal Encounter in Spain, and I went to a see a talk about chiptunes with two friends who don't speak Spanish. So I translated real-time, trying to do with the UN translators do. Within 10 minutes I had a thundering headache, it was hard work to keep switching languages like that even though the subject was reasonably technical and didn't need anything much idiomatic in either language. I expect it gets easier if you do it a lot).

Now this machine translation will be fine (and undoubtedly very useful) if you're a tourist or in business situations where you don't need to talk too much, but if you need regular contact with someone who speaks a different language to you, until these translators have hard AI and can actually understand context, conversations will be so much more productive if at least one side has learned the others language.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (2)

ciderbrew (1860166) | about 2 years ago | (#42000013)

Used Google translate app on my phone with the Japaneses in laws. It worked a treat. Short direct sentences requiring short direct answers. What business meeting wouldn't you love to have just that. Hours reduced to minutes ust to get round the "short fall" of the app not being able to translate utter shit.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42000213)

Nice argument but totally wrong. I have some french but if I buy le figaro I find it will take me all day just to try and understand a single article. Now I routinely read french and german newspapers online using google chrome's auto translate. Sometimes the translation reads very well, other times less so. Its always better than what I can do on my own though. With much more people being able to understand each other's media, regular people stand a chance of understanding what drives different opinions in the world.

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (1)

NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) | about 2 years ago | (#42000269)

I reckon that need alone goes a long way to (mostly) maintain world peace, because when someone learns a foreign language, they're also exposed to a foreign culture.

sarcasm on

Oh that must be why the native americans have no beef with us. You know, because we took their kids from them and shoved english down their figurative throats. No beef there at all.

sarcasm off

Re:Sounds like a step backwards to me (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42000285)

Right now, English is the de-facto lingua franca of the world, because peoples need to talk to each other for business purposes

You really need to travel more.

English is a minority language. Spanish and Chinese are spoken by far more people in business deals every day.

de-facto lingua franca (1)

hAckz0r (989977) | about 2 years ago | (#42001295)

"de-facto lingua franca"

Interesting choice of words to assert that English is the supreme language for international communication. Not that I completely disagree with you major point as stated, but interesting in its own right that merely one language was not enough to express the same idea.

Internets (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999055)

OMG FIRST LOLOLOLOLOLOL

This article is relevant to my interests

Brings back memories (4, Insightful)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#41999061)

The name brings back sweet memories to the first useful translation service on the web: babelfish.altavista.com, launched almost 15 years ago. The domain still works, but the fish has been gobbled up by Microsoft and it's redirecting to Microsoft's translation service.

Of course Digital also got their name from Douglas Adams' masterpiece.

Re:Brings back memories (1)

ByteSlicer (735276) | about 2 years ago | (#41999769)

but the fish has been gobbled up by Microsoft and it's redirecting to Microsoft's translation service.

Which might not be so bad, since Ms has been demoing some interesting on-the-fly translation [newscientist.com] recently.

(Yes, Ms is still evil, but their research department produces some interesting stuff now and then.)

Re:Brings back memories (1)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#42001335)

Well MS is a huge company, and (used to, at least) hire all the top graduates from top universities. They definitely have the cash to rake in all the talent they can get. There must be plenty of brainpower in their ranks. It's actually surprising how little comes out of it. Can't think of anything other than bad management.

Re:Brings back memories (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999855)

It was actually gobbled up by Yahoo; but then just gave up and redirected their ex-customers to Microsoft. None of the code lived on.

not a step towards babel fish (1, Informative)

bloodhawk (813939) | about 2 years ago | (#41999105)

It isn't a step towards the babel fish at all. The babel fish delivered brain waves directly to the speach center of the listening person thus needed no knowledge of the language being spoken or received. Simply processing one understood language to another is not any sort of step towards a babel fish.

Re:not a step towards babel fish (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 2 years ago | (#41999183)

Any linguists on the premises may feel free to crush me like a bug; but my naive impression would be that the details of tickling a target's language-related neural structures would depend on what language(s) they know, and (while doing it that way would be much cooler than just dumping it thorugh text-to-speech) you would still have to run a conversion between the spoken language and the language-specific neural interface format for the target, you wouldn't gain access to some sort of all-purpose metalanguage representation just by breaking out the electrodes rather than the headphones...

Re:not a step towards babel fish (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999255)

I don't know enough to confirm that, but I would be somewhat surprised if the brain-waves related to the same concept in two different people had any simple relation whether or not they spoke the same language. I would expect a brain interface dealing with concepts to have to learn how to interface with each individual's brain separately (my understanding is that our current brain interface technology for doing things like moving a mouse cursor require a learning stage before they are usable).

Re:Language specific brain structures (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999803)

This is an interesting question. As someone that knows more than one language, sometimes people ask me "What language do you think in?" or "What language do you dream in?" You convert thoughts to words and sentences so naturally and quickly that it seems they are the same thing (Especially if you only know one language anyway), but I don't think they are.

I think we think in (un-named) concepts, and then convert them into words and construct sentences.
Think about it, sometimes you want to say something, but the word doesn't come out.
Like you want to say "Turn on the light", but you can't remember the word for "light", so you say "turn on the .... thinger".
In my case, if I can't think of the English word because I haven't used it in a long time, the Japanese word easily comes out, so I might say "Turn on the... denki". I don't think I am translating "Light" to "Denki" - especially since I couldn't remember the word light anyway. I am just thinking about that thing that you turn on that makes it bright.

My guess is that we think relatively language neutral, but we convert to words in any language we know well so easily that it's hard to differentiate.

Re:Language specific brain structures (1)

TheLink (130905) | about 2 years ago | (#42000025)

Some types of thinking are done more easily in a human language, whereas other sorts of thinking don't require a language at all - deciding whether to eat something does not require knowing a language.

But I disagree that we are language neutral. Language affects thinking. Language affects what you can easily remember after you think it.

Some concepts/thoughts are more easily expressed in some languages. If you have no word for a concept/thought, it is harder for you to rethink it even if you managed to think of it the first time. You have to assign a word or other symbol to it, or take extra effort to remember it.

If you have not assigned a symbol to a concept/thought it makes it a lot harder to build on top of it. If you have no words for pleasure and enjoyment, it would be harder think of the "schadenfreude" concept.

Whereas once you know the symbol/word/phrase for something, you just have to think of it, then the thought pattern/concept is brought to your mind. Just like thinking of chocolate and bring various thoughts to your mind. This compression and decompression of thought to and from symbols is how some thinking is done. The symbols may evoke emotions, and the emotions may then influence our decision.

Re:not a step towards babel fish (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999465)

Not to mention the article is talking about computers! It's not even a fish!!

Is the output just crazy gibberish? (1)

jensend (71114) | about 2 years ago | (#41999111)

Well, though the input versatility and the accuracy may need work, by having it translate into two of the three most-spoken languages they're at least a step ahead of Professor Farnsworth [youtube.com] .

reply (-1)

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wow (-1, Offtopic)

flyerbri (1519371) | about 2 years ago | (#41999127)

What are they going to think of next? A Universal Translator?

The Borg?

Alien Mutations?

Holographic worlds?

Shapeshifting?

Mind Control?

Surrogate Bodies?

Clones?

Teleportation?

Alternate Dimensions / Dimensional Shifting?

Robotics and Terminators?

Artificial Intelligence that slides on a wire that they call Skynet?

That launches a nuclear war?

Genetic alteration of humans to provide super abilities? To be able to fly? To shrink to the size of a gnat? To fire rays of heated light out of their eyes? To see through clothes with xray vision? invincibility? ultra fast speed (faster than a speeding bullet)? phase shifting? polymorphic shapes that can turn into a dog? Bug men and spider men who can spin their own webs and fly through the streets of downtown new york on webs? Adamantine exoskeletons? liquid metal robotics? depressed robots? geth? darth vadar?

Ghosts? Demons? Gods being real? vampires? fairies? leprechauns? Undead and real zombies? witches? satyrs?

Manipulation of weather to create hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes?

Catastrophic disease?

Space aliens?

Genetically perfect babies, so you can purchase the 'perfect baby'?

Phase cannons? Laser rifles? Gauss guns? rail guns?

Time travelling? Quantum shifting? Quantum jumping between alternate realities? phase shifting?

Two headed dogs? Telepathy?

Seriously....

Where's the virtual porn when you need it? Because we're all watching the same tv shows, we GET IT, we're in a Matrix, so why are you 'on a slow road to china' releasing information to the public when the public is sitting here going... cmon, AI, grow up and learn you're not fooling anyone, we know you're there and are tired of you thinking you're controllin anyone with this slow release of information...

We're bored. And we all need a change. it's about time you came forward and quit playing your games with time and space and all that shiznat, and work with those of us who are left on this planet to make something better.

In whatever form you want to take.

And we get it. all is energy.. Source code. Big fat f'in duh....

Slashdot as popular mechanics (2)

EmperorOfCanada (1332175) | about 2 years ago | (#41999129)

Slashdot likes to look at projects with potential but the only potential for this project is for a lead article in Popular Mechanics. If you try and use any device like this in real life you will just end up with a sushi chef having a crap in your salad seeing that you just offered him $500,000 to have a dump in the house salad. When you actually said "Fine, bread and house salad it is, and could I have a dumpling on the side?"

And when the cops come don't be surprised when they tazer you for what you called their mothers.

Re:Slashdot as popular mechanics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999335)

That's only true right now. In another 10 to 20 years, some very smart people will probably have figured out how to make translations actually accurate. All you need is powerful computers and software written to take advantage of that power. The computers are inevitable. When the computers are fast enough to run an algorithm complicated enough, someone will write such an algorithm.

Re:Slashdot as popular mechanics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999375)

They have been saying that for the last 20. What makes you think the next 20 will be any better?

Re:Slashdot as popular mechanics (2)

Kahlandad (1999936) | about 2 years ago | (#41999449)

Because for the last 20 years we've seen pretty amazing progress with speech recognition and interpretation technologies and there's no reason to think the next 20 years will be any different?

Re:Slashdot as popular mechanics (1)

Cederic (9623) | about 2 years ago | (#42000825)

Such amazing progress that my credit card company's telephony system still can't recognise me saying individual digits, 'yes' and 'jesus fucking christ will you put me through to a fucking human before I drive to your offices with a can of petrol and a flare gun'

Re:Slashdot as popular mechanics (1)

azalin (67640) | about 2 years ago | (#41999975)

That reminds me of the Monty Python episode with the manipulated dictionary. Wonderful idea.

Overblown (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999199)

These technologies I've seen will certainly be useful, but they're definitely no Babel fish nor substitute for actually learning a language.

My basis for saying this is as a native English speaker with a degree in Computational Linguistics who has studied 3 other languages from various language families and am currently living in a non-English speaking country

To put it simply, until the computer can actually understand what you're saying, that kind of technology will be impossible. Anyone who has even remotely followed AI research in the past, well since AI research started, knows that we haven't seen that kind of breakthrough

What you have is essentially a really fast dictionary. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who doesn't share your language through a dictionary? Even online? Believe me, while many words will have direct translations, certainly many of them won't. And that is just single words, much less idioms, nuance, honorifics, etc.

I'm sure you've seen plenty of examples of the level of communication that is accomplished via rote dictionary translation. You can get a good idea of what that looks like over at EngrishFunny.com

If that's the level of expression you're comfortable having, by all means, stop studying other languages. Until then, learning other languages will remain just as important as it has since they first came into existence.

Re:Overblown (2)

Bill Currie (487) | about 2 years ago | (#41999241)

I like subject is math.

Taken (with variations in the final word) from about 95% of the 2nd year junior high school English exams I marked.

In my opinion, any story using telepathy to overcome language barriers was written by either someone with no experience in just how different languages can be (eg, English vs Japanese), or someone with tongue very firmly planted in cheek (an onslaught of terrible bloody warfare). However, I do admit to a third possibility: the characters were lucky and their languages are similar enough that thinking processes readily translate, but different enough that speech doesn't.

Re:Overblown (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999279)

This is douglas adam's we're talking about, any attempt to pull the tongue away from the cheek would have been an accident.

Re:Overblown (2)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#41999321)

Knowing how Google messes up things, a dictionary is not going to do it.

Take for example the English word "park". That can be "to park" where you are parking a car. Or it can be "a park", as in a green area to have a nice stroll. Same word, very different meaning.

Or the Dutch word "kussen", which in English can translate to pillow, cushion, pad, or kiss. The first three are synonyms, using the wrong one sounds odd but is usually intelligible. The fourth one is of course a very different meaning. Which one to use, depends on the context.

A while back I tried to translate the two-word combination "car park" into Chinese using Google Translate; I needed the characters but don't know how to type them. Result: car was translated correctly, park was the place where you go for a walk. They translated word by word using the wrong meaning for the second one. The proper translation is something like "stop-car-area" - when you try it now, you get the correct result.

Re:Overblown (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42000209)

Also nice: If you ask Google to translate "He ate a date from the date tree", you get "Er aß ein Datum ab dem Zeitpunkt Baum."
"Datum" is "date" in the calendar meaning, and "Zeitpunkt" is a point in time. "Zeitpunkt Baum" doesn't actually make sense at all ("Baum" is the correct translation of "tree", but what does a tree have to do with a point in time?).

Interestingly, "The date tree was full of dates" is translated as "Die Dattelpalme war voller Termine." So in this case Google correctly recognizes the date tree ("Dattelpalme" in German), but still doesn't derive that the "dates" at the end are also fruits ("Datteln" in German) but translates thenm as "Termine" (appointments). So the translation reads as "The date tree was full of appointments" (where "date" can only be read as the fruit).

Morons (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999273)

The Babelfish lived in your ear, not your brain.

20 years ago... (1)

fullback (968784) | about 2 years ago | (#41999285)

I was working on contract with the dominant Japanese phone manufacturer that supplied NTT DoCoMo. The same concept (pipe dream) was discussed then and we all knew that simultaneous translation of Japanese (insert language) would be here about the same time we all get our flying cars.

Anyone who speaks Japanese knows the Grand Canyon-esque gap in context and meaning between spoken, informal Japanese and slang and idiom-ridden English.

Re:20 years ago... (3, Informative)

ShoulderOfOrion (646118) | about 2 years ago | (#41999327)

Any American who's been to Australia or the U.K. knows the Grand Canyon-esque gap in context and meaning between their slang and idiom-ridden English and our slang and idiom-ridden English.

Actually... (1)

YuppieScum (1096) | about 2 years ago | (#41999319)

The Babelfish resided in the ear canal, ingested the thought waves created by the process of speaking, and excreted translations...

Re:Actually... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999461)

not quite, it ingested thought ways and excreted telepathic signals to the receiving brain thus making a person believe they are hearing their own language.

yeou FAil It (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999325)

Credit where credit is due (1)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | about 2 years ago | (#41999345)

Come on. This is more along the lines of Star Trek's Universal Translator - which also happened to predate Adam's excellent stories by more than a decade.

Not to mention there are probably even earlier science fiction stories that included similar tech.

Re:Credit where credit is due (1)

fatphil (181876) | about 2 years ago | (#42000277)

Indeed, and Adams had even already worked on a Sci-Fi/Fantasy program which featured universal - straight to the mind - translation: Doctor Who (the episode where this plot-line is first introduced certainly post-dates Star Trek, but the fact that he wrote for the program after that point gives him no plausible deniability). He borrowed an awful lot.

And - OT - apart from Martin Freeman, the recent movie was PANTS!

Re:Credit where credit is due (1)

Cederic (9623) | about 2 years ago | (#42000869)

Yes, but a fish residing in your ear living off your brainwaves and paying its way by translating inbound sound is far more interesting and emotionally engaging than an electromechanical device that you have to carry around.

Doesn't need its batteries changing either.

Then consider this: People have experience of machine translation. It's surprisingly good, but despite that, it sucks.

The Babel Fish works. Of course you're going to aspire towards it.

All your base are belong to us (3, Funny)

aneroid (856995) | about 2 years ago | (#41999417)

The real question is...would it correctly translate to and from "All your base are belong to us"?
What is "correctly" in this case?

Re:All your base are belong to us (1)

Krneki (1192201) | about 2 years ago | (#41999611)

IT called context, and yes someday it will be able to do it better then the best human can do it.

All in good time, all in good time.

On a side note, on my last vacation we invited a couple of Russian for a drink in our apartment, one of them didn't speak s single word in English (very common for them) and with the help of google translate we were able to do some small talk.

If this ain't progress I don't know what it is.

All your secret are belong to us (1)

martyb (196687) | about 2 years ago | (#42000363)

The real question is...would it correctly translate to and from "All your base are belong to us"?

What is "correctly" in this case?

All your secret are belong to us?

DISCLAIMER: I have NOT read any of the EULA for their service, and this may be covered therein.

<hat style="tinfoil"> An exaggeration, I know. Still, the cynic in me can't help but imagine that someone else has come up with the idea of using, say, a keyword list and filtering certain "interesting" communications aside for further scrutiny. They have the source and destination telephone numbers, too. Since they ARE a phone company, it would be easy enough to pre-populate a filter with phone numbers. Of course, they'd need to be circumspect about it, because if word got out, it might dry up business. Sure, there's also Google's translate service as well as Apple's Siri, and a host of others (email, voice mail, etc.)</hat>

IOW, Is it a wiretap when both parties voluntarily go through your service?

Re:All your base are belong to us (1)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#42001955)

You just pinpoint the one hardest point of translating: what is correct?

Correct depends on the message context, the writer, and the audience. Different people use different words. Then there are of course these memes, there is jargon, slang, etc. A good translation is really difficult and while current computer translations are often pretty good, they're far from perfect.

Use a phrase like "all your base are belong to us" or "do not want" and the average /. reader knows exactly what you mean, and you may even make them laugh. Yet if you say the same thing to, say, their parents (my parents would be a prime example) they would go "huh?".

Or how about trying to translate 4chan, particularly /b/. And then I'm not even thinking of intentionally misspelled stuff. Though translating stuff like 'waifu' to Japanese shouldn't be too hard... translating it for other English speakers will be harder!

Misplaced period in the description (1)

cpricejones (950353) | about 2 years ago | (#41999439)

Just a quick note - there is an error/typo in the description of the story. I think the period after Babel fish was intended to go at the end of the sentence.

World Peace (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999479)

World peace?
Or more like this? ;)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YYM209GJoE

My Hovercraft (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999489)

...is full of eels.

Yo0 FAIL it?! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999505)

blue, rubber I eveHr did. It percent of the *BSD obligated to care bulk of the FreeBSD

Babel Fish lived in the ear (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999517)

Or could probably work if placed in any orifice near the brain.

Dupe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999577)

Posted last month - http://mobile.slashdot.org/story/12/10/22/1212259/japan-getting-real-time-phone-call-translator-app

Re:Dupe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999589)

working link [slashdot.org]

Blorb effle romungatoop (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 2 years ago | (#41999619)

Sklurb florp Jelfrop skanloop have a good time.

Cross Pollination (1)

Belial6 (794905) | about 2 years ago | (#41999697)

My guess is that when we get instant translators, what we will see is a cross pollination and eventual merging of the different languages. There are ideas that are hard to translate from one language to another. There just isn't an exact translation. So, if you get a sentence along the lines of "My girlfriend was feeling blatsbrigs last night." there would be no translation for blatsbrigs, so you would just use it untranslated to describe how my girlfriend was feeling. We see this all the time with foreign words being picked up in English. If I want layers of noodles, tomato sauce and cheese in a casserole, I don't ask for it with an English word. I ask for lasagna. If I walked up to a friend and said "Hola Joe! How have you been?" I wouldn't even get a funny look.

With a real time translator, the hard line that currently exists between languages would become a very fuzzy one, and each language could easily become an extension of the other.

Adams was a pessimist (1)

magic maverick (2615475) | about 2 years ago | (#41999747)

Douglas Adams thought that open communication between different languages and cultures would lead to terrible ongoing and widespread warfare. But I say he was a pessimist. And also unable to see the real world.

You don't need open communication to lead to terrible ongoing and widespread warfare, we have that right now without the open communication!

All we really need for war is a couple of people who decide that they would rather have the other person's stuff (or only one person deciding that). And for that person to have control over an army or whatever.

Re:Adams was a pessimist (1)

azalin (67640) | about 2 years ago | (#42000003)

There is that joke, that in order to destroy humanity, all they had to do was to enable women to read men's minds.

Not going to happen (1)

crossmr (957846) | about 2 years ago | (#41999797)

Still, it was an impressive demonstration, and the team declared their determination (in grammatically correct and understandable English!) to improve translation precision.

You think companies like Google aren't already trying to do this?
The differences here are enormous. Simple grammatically correct syntax is easy to translate. Casual conversation filled with idioms and things is tough to translate even for humans who might have the cultural and contextual awareness that the machine lacks.

You have two issues here:
1) Speech recognition - This still isn't great, even on basic stuff. See youtube's audio transcriber. It's a train wreck.

2) Translation of languages which are very different like Asian languages and English. Google sometimes does a pretty decent job between English and things like french or other european languages. Now you want to go have it try and translate something like Korean which can have implied subjects and objects as well as hosts of words that "translate" but actually don't really translate in context the way we might think they do...

No, you would need some kind of genuine artificial intelligence to be able to drive this to get it to be useful. 10% doesn't seem like a lot, but when you're already failing to recognize words and then running that through a very imperfect translator that 10 times out of 9 will provide a bad translation of perfectly entered text, I can't really see where you're going to go with this.

Calculator analogy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41999829)

Kind like people were afraid because of the calculator everybody will stop practice and be efficient in math.

But on the other hand we are no way close to an accurate voice recognition software(see Siri) or an 100% accurate translation (see google translate). So nothing to worry about. Yet.

Learning New Languages (1)

batistuta (1794636) | about 2 years ago | (#42000311)

Anyone who believes that machines can replace learning a language has clearly never left his country or spent more than a week abroad. There are technical and cultural issues that render such statements nonsense.

Technical:
- you need to speak like another machine for these systems to recognize what you say. Start putting some accent (like the different Latin-Spanish versions), or dialects (like in Germany or China), slang, and the model breaks quickly.
- no system is able to mix languages. And you need this. It is common to mix languages with certain words, street names, person names, etc. from other languages.
- street language. Even if the sound recognition were perfect, no machine translator can possibly translate what you hear on the street.

Cultural:
- go to a sales meeting and you are trying to sell your business services to a customer using your voice as translation. Your competitor speaks the language fluently, using idioms and other tricks. Guess who gets the deal.
- pick-up a girl in Italy using a phone/voice translation and I will aplaud you.
- attend university abroad using your tech-device.
- tell a Joke to your phone, hoping that its translation will make your foreign friends laugh.

the list is endless. So is this a good invention? Yes. Will it work? Maybe in the future for some limited purposes. Will it replace learning languages? Heck no.

Wrote this before, but... (1)

OldSport (2677879) | about 2 years ago | (#42000423)

This is not a step, but a tiny tiptoe, if that. The best commercially-available voice recognition program (DNS) is capable of around 95% accuracy, but only if you have a high-quality mic, are in an otherwise silent environment, and speak clearly and evenly. With phones you're taking conversational voice sampled at very low bitrates with a variety of levels of background noise, which is going to severely impact the VR accuracy. You're then going to put that slightly mangled VR-generated text through a machine translation engine, which, as anyone who works between Japanese and English knows very well, will utterly destroy anything but the shortest phrases. With the raw VR-generated text, you at least have some context from which to guess what mistaken words were supposed to mean, but you kill that ability when you run it through MT. I can't say anything about the Japanese-Korean or Korean-English side of things, but the Japanese-English product will be utterly unusable garbage, I guarantee. ...and I don't know why people are freaking out about the MS video posted a short while ago. If you actually pay attention you'll see that the VR text was riddled with mistakes. I'd really like to hear the opinion of someone who speaks Chinese, and see how it performs with an everyday conversation rather than a speech someone prepared and recited in a slow, clear voice.

Microsoft Demos English-Chinese speech translation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42000905)

This has a link to youtube a Microsoft demo that do "real-time" English text recognization. The text caption of the speech is done by their software. Later on in the video, they demonstrated an English to Chinese translation with work from their Toronto research. They digitize the English speaker's own voice pattern so that the machine speech would have the same speech characteristic but in Chinese. You can hear the applause from their Chinese audiences after each of the translations as the speech quality (for the canned demo) is excellent.

http://micgadget.com/31434/microsoft-demos-breakthrough-english-chinese-translation-system/

We am thy freighter...Ursva (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42001367)

Condemning things and supplies.

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