Our iPhones, smartphones, and other handheld devices are often our windows to the world. People who would not read a book will read every social media post on their various feeds. However, translation apps, while helpful, are still a long way from being ideal, and will probably be far from perfect for a long time. While science fiction has solved the problems of translation with a “universal translator” which can understand and translate even unearthly languages, we are still light-years away from such technology.
Well, the smartphones are not ignorant, but some of the translator apps are. The problem is that most of the apps are not designed to translate languages, but words. There is a difference, and you have probably encountered the problem when you have tried to translate a sign or someone else’s words. Most machine translators – and smartphones are machines – take each communication and translate each word in order. The result is usually pure gibberish. Languages have different sentence structures and gender assignments to inanimate objects, and these only insure misunderstanding when subjected to literal, word for word translation. Unfortunately, there is not an app that can compensate for the need to completely rearrange sentences to communicate information.
This is why you received such strange, even angry looks when you stuck your smartphone in a stranger’s face and had the phone translate a question to them. They didn’t understand the gibberish any more than you understood the garbled insult they hurled back at you.
These apps do not account for the multiple meanings of words, either. For example, the English word “set” has over 460 meanings. Which one will the app select? There is no way to know, and it will garble your question.
Maybe an app would at least get you in the right direction with signs. Take a picture of the sign, and translate it. However, most apps will not recognize the letters if there is any damage to the letter or sign, and cannot discern the shapes of the letters if they are a certain font, or if there is a detailed background. Word Lens is an example of this type of app.
The truth is, many if not most apps are written by companies that do not even consult native language speakers! They simply hire programmers to type in the word for word translations from dictionaries, and sell them as translation apps. In addition, this type of app, such as Vocre, charges for every translation after the first 10!
Non Verbal Communication
Perhaps one of the biggest shortcomings of translation software – besides the obvious lack of sentence structure and word meanings, is the exclusion of non-verbal communication cues.
In an age of some of the most impressive and advanced technology, software still does not translate conversation and body language. And, it is not likely to in the near future. If you want more than a cursory experience with a person or culture, you need to learn the language.