Posted by: sbilingual | November 21, 2011

Borderless Conversations: Relevance, Not Translation, Is the Challenge

In Mandarin, the word “ma” has four different meanings based on the level of tonal pitch.  In one octave the word means “mother,” in another, “horse.”  It doesn’t take much imagination to see this could lead to some rather embarrassing situations if words aren’t translated correctly.

So, in an effort to avoid accidentally calling someone’s mother a horse, Google is taking a stab at utilizing real-time translation technology to create a smart-phone app that will be the closest thing to a universal translator to date. In early 2010, Google Goggles came out, extracting text from an image taken by a user and converting it with the help of a technique called statistical machine translation.  But the real gem comes from Google Translate, which is already cornering the market with their online version, and is currently translating between 52 languages and multiple alphabets. Now, they’re taking things to the next level: translating live speech.  Just by toggling “conversation mode” and speaking into your Android device, Google Translate will actively produce a translation (although for now it only works for speakers of English and Spanish).

In an interview with the UK Times Online, Google’s Head of Translation Services Franz Och captured the challenge and opportunity this technology holds: “We think speech-to-speech translation should be possible and work reasonably well in a few years’ time.  Clearly for it to work smoothly, you need a combination of high-accuracy machine translation and high-accuracy voice recognition and that’s what we’re working on.  But recognition should be effective with mobile phones because, by nature, they are personal to you.”

Linguists and educators alike are raising their hands and talking about the enormity of the digital translation challenge as well as the implications of solving it. While many believe translation has the capacity to bring the world closer together, some are concerned that the combined forces of translation technology, globalization and the internet will spawn a global monoculture.

Whatever your viewpoint, the fact of the matter is that conversations are happening in different languages and in different cultures across the globe.  I recently spoke on a panel at a Social Media Week event, hosted by JWT, where we discussed that we now live in the era of the “borderless brand,” one that is not confined to individual ads, social media platforms, newspapers, water-cooler talk or packaging.  Messaging is everywhere, all-engulfing and limitless.  Brands can have a target audience, but the fences of the world have been torn down letting the stream of information flow freely.

And I, for one, do not view translation as being the barrier to having these global conversations (because obviously, we are at the tipping point of some incredibly intuitive technologies out there to tackle this issue).  Rather, it’s finding culturally relevant themes and stories across borders that’s the real challenge.  Humans are nuanced communicators; we aren’t limited to the number of words in a dictionary or the range of options in a thesaurus.  If brands can latch on to finding a solid, universal story line everyone can relate to, opportunities are endless.  I think this was very much proven in our Pepsi Refresh project, where discussions spanned the globe, and the same passion could be felt across borders.  And do you know why?  Because everyone believes in a dream.  Everyone believes in bettering their own lives and the lives of the future.

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit

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