Is it all over for Interpreting?

If you believe the hype, the interpreting profession is on its last legs. NTT Docomo, the biggest mobile phone network has at last managed to provide a service that allows anyone with a smartphone to instantly have their words interpreted. According to this article from the BBC, other companies are working on the same technology. All that remains now is for a few minor tweaks to be done and language barriers are a thing of the past. Cool, eh?

Well, it might be, if things were really that simple. On the accompanying video, BBC presenter, Richard Taylor feeds the software a simple sentence “are there any good restaurants near here?” and an interpreter (mislabelled “translator,” thanks BBC!) responds with something equally as simple. This is the kind of thing that 1st year language students could do in their sleep and even good Machine Translation software could churn out without too much difficulty.

Faced with this simple task, the software performs pretty poorly. Its English-Japanese version is, according to the interpreter, understandable but not much better than that. The Japanese-English, meanwhile, would not exactly be what an interpreter would produce. We are not in minor tweak territory here. We are actually about 10 years behind the current state of the art in machine translation and parsecs away from what one could call “interpreting.”

So, no need to worry, interpreters still have jobs for a few years yet. It is still worth doing training and looking for work.

Even if this technology does work, will it do humans out of work? The answer is, probably not. Just as machine translation has only really cornered the market in getting the “gist” of emails, letters and the like and has actually become another tool for human translators, we can expect something similar to happen here. The only people who might really feel threatened by this technology are phrase book publishers. For simple requests for the direction of the tourist office and panicked searches for the nearest public toilets, a machine translation-enabled smartphone will (eventually) do the trick.

It is difficult to foresee this technology taking over in the court, conference or business markets. Would you really want your perfectly crafted speech to be turned into garbled but minimally understandable googlish? And that might represent the best outcome!

This well-known video illustrates just what the limitations of NTT Docomo’s technology are likely to be. For those with non-standard accents such as Geordies, Aberdonians or even, (shock!) Glaswegians, voice recognition is already struggling. Add in a layer of not quite perfect machine translation and we are looking at comedic breakthroughs rather than technological ones.

Of course, we can never dismiss technology out of hand. It is possible that, just as google managed to create a step change in machine translation by using texts from large international organisations, someone might manage something similar with this. It is just possible that, with years of work and a lot of training, NTT Docomo or someone else might manage to move this from being a gimmick to being of some use. For the foreseeable future, that’s the best that can be hoped for.

So, while reports of the death of interpreting would be greatly exaggerated, phrase books might be pining for the fjords. Once voice activated machine translation can handle those two obscure allusions said in a Glaswegian accent and produce an entertaining version in another language, then we need to start worrying!