By: Latha Sukumar, Executive Director
“What if two people can have a flawless online dating experience but have complete language barriers offline”?
A much-awaited annual event is the GALA conference. It is run by a small, but mighty team, at GALA (Globalization and Localization Association), a non-profit trade association for the translation and localization industry, located in Seattle, Washington. Their annual global conference brings together people from across the globe to network and share ideas. The pandemic put a wrench on those plans this year though, and we had to make do with a conference on zoom rather than one in sunny San Diego in March 2020. GALAConnected held from September 22 to 25, with its timely theme, “Building a stronger shared future together” was the online answer to keep industry folks connected and engaged; that, and the promise of a conference in Dublin in September 2021, if all the stars align and COVID-19 becomes a distance memory by then!
I will share insights from the organizers, participants and sponsors about this online conference in a later blog. For now, I am going to talk about the little thought experiment that I was asked to participate in. Referred to as the “What if?” panel, we were four panelists invited from all across the language industry to speculate on a “what if” question. This panel was back on popular demand after its success at last year’s conference in Munich.
As we counted down, I wondered how GALA would replicate its annual conference experience of exciting learning opportunities and warm camaraderie, and without the delicious culinary spreads at every meal! Engaging folks through social media, connecting with everyone over the phone, the GALA team and members of the program committee got key influencers from the language industry to rally and make it a resounding success. I must confess though that I attended fewer sessions than I would have in person. While in an online conference, there is the advantage of not having to wander from room to room looking for your preferred workshop; the disadvantage is that everyday exigencies draw you in, forcing you to sacrifice sessions. This online offering reinforced for me why the immersive experience of an “in-person” conference is a must. They remove you not just from your physical space, but also your emotional and intellectual one, to scintillate with new ideas, new interactions and renewal of old friendships. When it is in a different country and culture, there is the added benefit of experiencing new conventions and foods, and having a courtside view of how local people work, live and travel.
So more about the “What if?” panel. A few weeks in advance, we were asked to forward “what if” questions as it related to humans and our interaction with technology. Then closer to the session, we were asked to pick any one to speculate on. I have posted all the “what if?” questions that were submitted at the end of this blog. Try thinking through some! There are no rules!
With great freedom comes great responsibility! I sought input from peers. Finally, the day arrived and I had 12 minutes to present on my topic. One of four other panelists had a last minute commitment(!), and so, bonus, I would have some extra time to fall flat on my face in the presence of experts in the industry.
Jim Compton, Senior Localisation Manager at RWS Moravia, whose brainchild this panel was, set up the exercise. He talked about how his mother had introduced him to this game on their road trips and how this had been a salon game among the upper crust.
María Jesús de Arriba Díaza, Director, Strategic Accounts at Vistatec, courageously moderated the session, not really knowing what to expect! We had just found out a few hours earlier on which topics the other panelists were going to present. Jeff Beatty, Senior Localisation Manager at Mozilla spoke passionately about a world where you could browse any digitally-archived information in any language of choice. He painted a picture that was so utopian that it had me starry-eyed imagining a perfect and equitable world where everyone had an equal voice. Alessandra Binazzi, who is a Globalization and Localization thought leader, gave us a rude awakening to the dystopia that potentially awaits us in a world where artificial intelligence (AI) is fast gaining. She painted a dismal, bleak view of a world where AI forced all humans to learn the same language, whichever one the AI prefers for us to have, better technology, and human interface. It sent shudders down my spine. I chose a more lighthearted topic, but an important one! My question was, “What if two people can have a flawless online dating experience but have complete language barriers offline?”
Of course, I laid out my assumptions. One, that online communication using translation technology is barrier-free. Two, that interactions offline when the couple does meet will be completely offline and devoid of technology. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. We know that cross-language communications online are not seamless and there can be no such thing as offline communications without devices!
However, on one hand, conversations taking place via software for video chat and voice calls among people speaking different languages are getting simpler to translate and with the vast amounts of data being fed into machines everyday, machine learning is happening faster than the speed of light. On the other hand, cross-language conversations in a face-to-face setting are not going down the same path. According to Daryl Plummer, Managing VP and Chief of Research at Gartner, “Mobile devices equipped with translation technologies are only good at translating a conversation that is presented at a reasonably slow pace, from two people, in a reasonably quiet room, and within a given distance from the device.”
Ok, so let’s get back to our story. The couple meets online and they are attracted to each other. They chat, share interests, express emotions and the translation engines work hard to ensure they can communicate. They finally agree to meet. They’re extremely nervous. One is visiting a foreign land, knowing no one. Another is receiving a friend, potentially introducing that person to their loved ones and friends. Each takes crash courses on Duolingo in the other’s language, hoping to learn as many stock phrases as possible, “hello, nice to finally meet you”, “welcome to my country”, “you’re beautiful”. They download speech recognition and translation software on their phones. The plane finally lands. The visitor’s phone is struggling to connect to the local data network. Now face to face, they are awkward; the language barriers seem insurmountable. Finally, a beep sounds on the visitor’s phone and they are connected to the internet. The visitor quickly types, “I love your smile”. The tension is diffused. But is it smooth sailing from here?
One person on a chat forum had this to say, “I started to get really angry for the first time in my life. I read later that anger stems from the inability to express yourself.”
Now there definitely are advantages to meeting in person. They can use body(!) language; they can get the other’s undivided attention without other online distractions; and they can actually confirm the other exists. However, the challenges cannot be minimized. So, what are the challenges and how can they be overcome?
Meanings for specific words do not always match across different languages and contexts. What goes in is sometimes not the same as what comes out. Judith Glaser, in her book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, has said meaning is in the domain of a listener. She goes on to add:
“…through language and conversations, we learn to build trust, to bond, to grow, and build partnerships…However, words are not external, objective reality. They are projections of our own inner reality.” In addition, what is implied or left unsaid is sometimes more important than what is said.
These challenges cannot be managed easily with the aid of machine translation. For example, the simple phrase, “would you like to go for coffee?” can be interpreted in so many different ways depending on the individual and their cultural context. Or the question, “have you eaten?” need not be an invitation to go for lunch or dinner, as would be the understanding in some Western cultures.”
So what would be an optimal solution to make offline relationships across language barriers work? I have five suggestions.
- Machine translation (MT) with deep cross-linguistic and cross-cultural data in as many language pairs as possible.
- Translation devices that are personal, wearable or even embedded.
- Dating apps that provide translation, text to voice and have an “interpreter like” feature. They prompt the couple to set out the purpose of the conversation – so the app can apply the right “domain”, set language level and tone – a casual banter vs a serious discussion, interrupt for clarification, offer prompts to use facial expressions or caution against the use of idioms and so forth.
- Language-learning aids and tools that constantly learn and evolve to make the process of acquiring new languages less daunting, just like the calculator changed how we approached numerical challenges.
- Finally, we would have to evolve into better humans, practising the zen art of listening, valuing silence and cultivating more patience.
To my surprise, the chat box flooded with comments throughout my presentation and there was even a suggestion that I peddle a sitcom idea to Netflix, based on this theme.
I am glad I brought some cheer and maybe provoked some creative thinking for products the language industry can develop. With this “What if?” panel, well-attended by participants from around the world, the online GALAConnected conference ended on a high note!
For more information on machine translation, its limits and COVID-19, you can read another one of our blogs here: https://www.mcislanguages.com/blog-post/covid-stories-covid-19-and-the-limits-of-machine-translation
“What If?” Questions
What if “quality translation” was only a concern for 5% of all client-based translation needs? ● What if AI forces all humans to all learn the same language? ● What if an AI can imitate a parent’s voice, and learn enough language and behaviour to babysit? ● What if foreign delegations attending a conference can have real-time machine translation scrolling down their smart glasses, eliminating the need for conference interpreters? ● What if industry focus turned away from MT? ● What if machine translation, trained throughout the 2000 and 2010s starts to sound “old fashioned” to the next generation? ● What if remote healthcare services became the norm? ● What if the current e-commerce volume grew 10 times in the next 3 years? ● What if the discipline of localization started today, in this digital, AI, ML, MT world? ● What if the Internet became a truly global public resource and every last person was online and connected? ● What if the Internet–arguably a by-product of the Cold War–had been created by Russia and not by the United States? ● What if the language style changes by using non-human components and it is no longer considered natural? ● What if the product of linguists was paid through royalties, similar to the product of authors, artists, and musicians? ● What if the world no longer prints books, magazines, or paper publications of any kind? ● What if the world rejects local currencies in favor of global crypto-currencies? ● What if the written language didn’t exist? ● What if there is never a need again to learn a foreign language, due to smart interpretation/translation technology (like how calculators eliminated the need to do basic math)? ● What if there was a newly empowered global grassroots movement to adopt a common “world language” (like Esperanto)? ● What if today you had to decide whether to focus on your top 10 language of today or the widest array of languages? ● What if translators adopted a royalty-based pricing structure instead of a per word rate or hourly rate? ●What if two people can have a flawless online dating experience but have complete language barriers offline? ● What if we achieved total “lights out” project management for our industry? ● What if we are still in an infant stage when it comes to technology? ● What if we could use Google Translate to communicate with anyone in the world in any language? ● What if we eliminate all Translators and Translation Companies by AI+MT? ● What if we started from zero, beginning of time and languages. Would languages still come to exist? How in today’s world? ● What if you could browse any digitally archived information – from newsletter articles, to court trial transcripts, to health records, to e-books – In any language of choice? ● What if you had access to any talent you could have, e.g. Bill Gates, guru engineer, best linguist, best terminologist, scientist, etc.? ● What if your phone can interpret phone conversations in real time, using your voiceprint?