Professional translators aren't worried about Google's language-translating headphones (GOOG)

Rob Price
Google Pixel Buds

Google


  • This week, Google announced "Pixel Buds" — wireless headphones that can translate 40 languages on the fly.
  • It's impressive, but most translators don't worry for their jobs any time soon.
  • Others are more pessimistic: One said it will "[destroy] my profession."

In Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy" series, a Babel Fish is a small yellow fish that will automatically translate any language in the universe for you if you shove it in your ear.

In the real world, of course, that's the job of interpreters and translators — tasked with the job of translating everything from corporate documents to geopolitical summits, helping out hapless tourists and the linguistically challenged around the world

But on Wednesday, Adams' fantastical idea took a step closer to reality when Google announced the "Pixel Buds" — a pair of wireless headphones that have Google Translate software built in, capable of translating 40 different languages as they're spoken to you.

So should professional translators and interpreters start getting freaking out about artificial intelligence (AI) stealing their jobs?

Business Insider asked a handful of people working in the field for their thoughts. The verdict: While the tech is exciting, and has obvious consumer applications, they're not worried.

Translation software recognises words — but not meaning

babel fish douglas adams translation hitchhikers guide to the galaxy

Buena Vista PicturesTake the following sentence: "The hand made fun of the worm for not knowing what mud was, let alone a moon pool. The toolpusher and the roughneck joined the fun, asking the worm if he knew the difference between kick and kill."

It sounds like jibberish, but it does make sense — if you're familiar with jargon used in the oil and gas industry.

A professional translator or interpreter with knowledge of the subject will be able to parse it and convert it into another language while retaining its meaning — while translation software would likely render it nonsensical.

"Any legit professional will tell you that no matter how much the technology evolves, there's simply no way for it to replace a translator or an interpreter due to several issues, the major ones being sentiency and abstraction," said João Correia, a professional Portugese translator.

"Sure, the machine will have no trouble in conducting a generic, simple conversation like 'Hello, how are you?', 'Good Morning' or even 'I'm going out to buy some groceries', but I'd like to see what happens when an Anglophile uses it to communicate with a Japanese about oil rig implementation."

It's an attitude that others echoed. "Well, I think they will be useful for tourists, but when it comes either to technical stuff (and I'm not talking about aeronautical engineering or something of the sort, but about just a plain cooking recipe, for example) or to aesthetics (a play, for example), AI still has a long way to go before it produces decent results," Vane Oritz said.

"I don't think machines will ever be able to analyze the non-verbal aspect of communication deeply enough to detect the real meaning of what is being said."

Others think the machines will steal their jobs — eventually

president barack obama translator interpreter ear piece headphones

Epsilon/Getty ImagesFears about machines stealing jobs are widespread, as technology and AI mean that everything from human truck-driving to legal clerk work is at risk of being made obsolete.

Professional services firm PwC estimates that as much as 38% of American jobs are at risk of automation by the 2030s. And not everyone in the translation/interpretation industry is blasé about the potential risk to their livelihood.

Ludmila Baker, a court interpreter, said she "welcome[s] new and amazing technology like this, even at the price of it destroying my profession. I'll have to find something else to do, just like millions of others have done through history."

In technical fields (like court reporting), she predicted, the tech would reachable a usable state long before it actually gets adopted — but it will, eventually.

"I think the technology will be available way before the courts will be willing to use it. There are due process and constitutional rights that must be protected, and the laws will have to change before machines can do our jobs.

"As complex as human language is, and keeping in mind all the variables that affect interpretation (code switching, slang, etc), I still believe this technology will be good enough to replace us (and, eventually, better)."

She added: "How long? Not so easy to tell. Technology and science don't progress in a linear way, but rather exponentially. The pace keeps getting faster."

Others took a more optimistic view of the tech, quoting DS Interpretation founder Bill Wood: "Interpreters will never be replaced by technology, they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology."

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SEE ALSO: Google’s new headphones have a universal translator feature for 40 languages — and I got to try it

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