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Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish Translator Concept Close to Reality as Language Applications Get Smarter

In his classic 1978 novel Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, British author Douglas Adams wrote of a leech-like translator fish that could be put inside a person’s ear and enable its host to understand every language in the known universe.

Fast forward to 2016 and such a concept is no longer the realm of quirky science fiction but a near reality.

Google Translate recently updated one of its algorithms to provide a service that both generates text in another language but also breaks down the sentence to figure out its meaning before creating a translated phrase.

It says its neural network translator, currently available for Mandarin Chinese with other languages to follow, is comparable in accuracy to human translators.

University of Adelaide linguistics and endangered languages professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann said the technology was becoming so advanced it was only a matter of time until Adams’ fictional Babel fish was made possible.

            “I have no doubt that we will eventually reach a situation in which we will be able to inject a language into our brain, so to speak.

“It might be using a computer chip.”

Applications like Google Translate can work in conversation mode, enabling people to talk to each other through a smartphone and a computer-generated voice.

“We have not reached a stage yet where we can actually rely on automatic translation in court, for example, but we will get there,” Professor Zuckermann said.

But far from reducing opportunities for interpreter work, he believes these advances would result in more employment for real translators and interpreters.

Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann and Barngarla woman Kiahra Atkinson

Photo: Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann works with Barngarla woman Kiahra Atkinson. (Supplied: Ghil’ad Zuckermann)

“More and more people will understand that they do not just need to desert or discard their heritage language, such as Italians or Greeks in Australia, or Aboriginals in Australia,” Professor Zuckermann said.

“It means there will be more opportunities for real translators to help those people when they need real interpretation, when they’re talking to a judge or need to sign an affidavit or whatever.”

Aboriginal people ’empowered’ by language revival

Professor Zuckermann has recently given new life to the language of the Barngarla people on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

Screenshot of the Barngarla app

The Barngarla dictionary app allows Aboriginal people to reconnect with their past. Supplied: Ghil’ad Zuckermann

He worked with Ngunnawal man Cheyne Halloran and the Barngarla Language Advisory Committee to produce an application that translates the Indigenous language to English and vice versa.

“The 1960s marked the end of spoken Barngarla. It was killed through colonisation, and the Stolen Generations, the technology of ships and black cars [that took away the children],” Professor Zuckermann said.

“Now technology is being used to empower Aboriginal people and to allow them to reconnect with their past.”

The app was created using a Barngarla dictionary written in 1844 by German Lutheran Christian missionary Clamor Wilhelm Schurmann “in order to disconnect ‘heathens’ from their culture and to show them his light”, Professor Zuckermann said.

“Now we’re using the very dictionary 170 years later to assist Aboriginal people who suffered linguicide to reconnect with their language.

“Because when you lose your language, you lose your intellectual sovereignty, your cultural autonomy, your spirituality, your soul.”

Professor Zuckermann said the development of translator technology could slow the loss of the world’s 7,000 languages, which are predicted to decrease by 90 per cent over the next 100 years.

              “In other words, 6,300 languages might become sleeping beauties, or Dreaming beauties as I call them in context of Aboriginal Australian languages.

“But given that we have such softwares that are becoming so advanced, it means the demise of many languages will be diminished because people will be less afraid to speak languages other than the international language, or the Esperanto of the world, which happens to be currently English.

“It might be in the future that Chinese or Mandarin Chinese will become the Esperanto of the world.”

And given that Google Translate has rolled out its most advanced technology to translate Mandarin Chinese as a priority above other languages, he might be right.


This article originally appears at:
Article taken from the following publication:
ABC News
Article submitted by:
Malcolm Sutton

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