We’ve heard many promises over the years – particularly in recent years – about how translation technology is moving forward in leaps and bounds and how it’s going to eradicate language barriers in no time at all. Sadly (or perhaps thankfully, for those who work in the professional translation industry), pretty much every attempt at machine translation turns out to not quite live up to its potential.
However, that’s not stopping some of the tech industry’s biggest players from piling money into the race to be the first company to conquer machine translation once and for all. The latest foray into this potentially hugely lucrative marketplace is Google, which has just launched its Pixel Buds.
Google Pixel Buds have been designed to translate 40 languages in real-time. Google has poured all of its artificial intelligence and neural network research into the tiny product, which is available to shoppers for the bargain price of just $159.
For businesses operating internationally, it’s a tempting price. Many company owners are no doubt weighing up a future that cuts out the need to pay for professional business translation services. In theory, all they should need to communicate in 39 other languages are now a Pixel phone and Google’s Pixel Buds.
The Pixel Buds draw on the technology behind the Google Translate app, meaning they can use knowledge of 40 languages to translate in an impressive 1,600 language pairings. After activating the right earbud by saying “Help me speak (the language of your choice),” the speaker can start talking. His/her phone will both read out and display a translation in the chosen language. One of the key features is that only one of the two people communicating needs to own Pixel Buds – the other can reply into that person’s Pixel phone. The phone will then translate directly into the ear bud.
Of course, this brings us to the first of the product’s limitations – those conversing need to be face to face in order to use Pixel Buds, unless both parties have their own set. Then there’s the far from small matter of the linguistic imperfections present in Google Translate. Even translating between two of the three most spoken languages on the planet (English and Spanish), the machine translation offered by Google struggles. A simple ‘paper jam’ in English turns into ‘mermelada de papel’ in Spanish – literally, a jar of jam made out of paper. The business applications of such sketchy translation are clearly limited.
And this, in essence, is the problem with the Pixel Buds. The technology is certainly impressive – the earbuds can deliver translation with only the smallest of lag times, making real-time conversation possible between those with no common tongue between them. Yet basic flaws in the machine translation system behind the device mean that they are far from perfect. Businesses considering relying on Google’s Pixel Buds for their translation needs may need a rethink. Certainly, they are a useful tool, but one that will complement traditional human translation services rather than replacing them any time soon.
Guest article written by: Louise Taylor is content writer for translation agency Tomedes. She’s in charge of the Tomedes translation blog and the Business translation Center.