Imagine if every web site in the world existed automatically in every language

I was talking yesterday with my friend Petr, who has recently launched Expert Decision, a news and commentary site covering issues facing his native Russia. The site being in Russian, and my Russian skills being limited to a couple words, it’s been necessary to resort to the translate tool in Chrome.

Here’s a sample of what it produced:

Before the SCO and BRICS summits, a little more than six months remain. The city authorities are hastily trying to put the streets in order. True, they choose not quite traditional methods of improvement. Residents collect signatures on a petition to ban the installation of protective screens. In your opinion, are fences really designed to increase sound insulation or is it an attempt to hide the “rotten”?

Is this perfectly fluid English? No. Would you mistake this for the writing of a native English speaker? If you’ve taught freshman comp maybe, but otherwise no.

However, it’s a damned sight better than the “all your base are belong to us” translation engines we had just a few short years ago. Using the Google translate function in Chrome you can now read Expert Decision, and millions of other sites around the world, well enough to get the story. As Petr observes, “it gives you a clue and conveys a general sense. Though parts are missing, of course. But who cares?”

I’d go further than this. I can get far more than a general sense. I have to do a little work in my own mind connecting some dots, but I come away with a pretty solid idea of the story. Yes, I may miss some nuance, but compared to, say, 2015?

Now let’s think five years into the future. My sense is that not only is translation technology improving, it’s doing so at a dizzying pace. What will AI-driven translators be able to accomplish, especially given the incomprehensible explosion of data it has to analyze and incorporate? My best guess is that within a decade these translation services will be as good as all but the very best humans. And only the most sophisticated readers will even be able to tell the difference between elite translators and the HAL.

Remember how much fun it used to be plugging text into a translator and running it from English to Chinese to Gaelic to Romanian and back to English? There was some serious all your base silliness there. If you get your kicks that way do it now, while you still can.

This is great news for everyone. Well, except people who earn their livings as translators. If these folks haven’t figured it out yet, here’s the message: you’re in the buggy whip business.

Imagine an American news site wants to reach a German audience. Or a Polish company is expanding into France. Or a Spanish blogger, who happens to be a Japanophile, wants to reach folks in her beloved Nihon. As it stands now you’d have to tackle the challenge of rolling out a foreign-language version of your site, and while such things are more than doable (check out the .com of any global retailer, for instance), it is not easy. It also isn’t cheap.

But what if translation shifted from communicator-side to audience-side via transparent tech-driven translation? What if an American reading this post thinks hmmm, I wonder what this Expert Decision site is all about and clicks the link above?

There is no English version of the site. Google’s translation isn’t bad. But in ten years, it’s all going to be seamless. There won’t be links to foreign-language versions of the site and there probably won’t even be a pop-up asking if you’d like a translation. Your browser knows what language you speak (hell, Google will probably know what color underwear you’re wearing right now) and the site pops up in English. (If you live in London it even presents in British English and if you live in Scotland you’ll get … whatever language it is you people speak.)

In other words, at some point every web site will exist in all commonly-spoken languagesBy default.

And this is just the text side of things. At some point I’ll be back to talk about voice recognition.

Isn’t this fun?

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