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The Live Translation Earpiece: What does this mean for the translation industry?

Waverly Labs’s new Pilot earpiece sounds like something lifted straight out of a science fiction film. The Pilot is a live translation earpiece which allows you to hold conversations in real time with a person who speaks a different language, without the aid of an interpreter. It’s already making huge waves in the tech industry, even though it’s not due to be released until autumn.

Forbes has compared it to Star Trek’s universal translator, and Mashable has suggested that it will be the real world’s answer to the Babel Fish; a fictional creature from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which lives in one’s ear and translates every language in the galaxy.

How does the Pilot earpiece work?

The Pilot earpiece promises to give us “a world without language barriers”.

“It’s kind of an end all solution for the traveller or international professional,” says Waverly Labs co-founder and CEO Andrew Ochoa.

In theory, all one needs to for the live translation to work is two ear pieces (one each for both participants in the conversation) and the mobile app through which the various languages are uploaded and selected for translation.

How could a live translation earpiece affect the human translation industry?

All in all, the Pilot looks like a very impressive piece of tech. But those of us in the translation and interpretation industry can’t help but wonder how well a live translation machine is going to work without a functional understanding of the nuances of human conversation.

How would the Pilot go about translating slang for example? What will it make of colloquialisms, or culturally specific idioms? How would it understand which subject matters or social cues might be considered offensive in other cultures?

For instance, can an earpiece warn you against talking with your hands in your pockets before you hold a business meeting with a German company? Can an earpiece help you understand how the Japanese word ‘majime’, which has no English equivalent, is contextually relevant to your conversation?

Unlike an earpiece, a human interpreter can translate in real time, and they can help you sidestep any awkward social faux pas their clients might unwittingly make. And they are able to think on the spot of better ways to translate when the English equivalent of what what someone is saying is ambiguous.

An earpiece probably won’t be able to understand the topics under discussion either. But human interpreters will be experts in whatever field their clients are discussing. This sort of valuable contextual knowledge can be essential to ensure that conversations and, in particular, business meetings, run smoothly.

So yes, the Pilot earpiece is amazing and the manner in which is has pushed the boundaries of technological innovation is quite admirable. This could be a great thing to take on holiday, but it will fare less well in serious conversations with high stakes. It will be a very long time before the technology advances far enough to allow the earpiece to replace human translators and interpreters altogether.

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