May2620091:40 pm

“The world’s common language is broken English”


Waiting for my sessions here at NAFSA to get going, I ponder the WashPost’s contemplation of the translation technology revolution: “How big a deal will it be to culture and society to have a cellphone that will allow you to talk to most of the world’s 6 billion people?”

To this day, if you want to get a translation absolutely right, go find yourself a talented human. “Nuclear power,” says Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association, when asked of areas where you want tremendously good human translation. “Negotiations for disarmament. The pharmaceutical industry. Zero-error work with millions of dollars” riding on the outcome. Hendzel has served as an interpreter on the presidential hot line.

The trouble with meticulous, culturally sensitive human translation, of course, is that it is slow, pricey and rare.

Suppose you are willing to settle for blazingly fast, cheap, “good enough” translations. Especially those aimed at languages spoken by the rich, multitudinous or dangerous. Enter the new generation of machine translators that in the last year have begun to open broad new vistas.

It seems like there are many situations in which fast, “good enough” translations would be benficial: combat/conflict zone situations and the translation of web content to make it more broadly accessible to users of many varying languages, to name two. But would having a cell phone that can translate any language on the fly be a good thing, from a cultural exchange standpoint? It would certainly make some situations abroad easier (i.e., trying to hack out the details of a cab ride or a market negotiation in an unfamiliar language), but that might in turn deprive us of some of the best experiences abroad—those awkward, difficult, but often enlightening cultural-linguistic encounters. How many students studying abroad would increasingly use their cell phone as a crutch instead of really learning the language of their host country? How many vacationers abroad would use their phone rather than hack out even rudimentary phrases?

Like every new technology, we’ll adapt and figure it out. But this particular technology seems to have some pretty far-reaching implications, both positive and negative, for our fields.


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2 Responses to ““The world’s common language is broken English””

  1. G says:

    The Amazing Race would be significantly less interesting with that technology.

    Have fun in LA.

  2. Bulldog says:

    I study Chinese for the last 2 years, and I’m not worried. It will take decades before the technology will know the tiny, yet crucial, cultural differences and language nuances. In other words – What you call “good enough” will not be good enough many years from now. Personally, I’ll not give up the pleasure of discovering new culture and its people via language difficulties. It might be useful when I’m on a spaceship ;) maybe. There are some alternatives even today. For instance, crowdsourcing of translations (to real, human translators) enables fast translation of texts. It’s not on-the-fly voice translation, but at least the quality is high. Such a website is, And there are few more. Still, I’ll be the first one to try any new technology that will be “good enough”.

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