Is the Universal Translator Finally Here?

Only about three percent of books published in languages other than English each year are translated into English. And even that three percent sometimes takes years to hit bookshelves after original publication. Foreign-language movies account for only about one percent of American box office. And translation of foreign TV shows and radio into English is vanishingly scarce.

Universal translators have been a longstanding trope in science fiction, and services like Google Translate have been around for a while now. But good translation is about much more than substituting words from one language into another. As amazing as Google Translate was when it first appeared, it only gave approximations of words, and often returned sentences that were incoherent. No one would read GT for pleasure.

Good translation is an art, seeing past just the words to convey meaning from one language to another. I dislike watching dubbed movies. — I can’t get past the mouths not matching the sounds, and the voice actors don’t match the body language. Subtitles are an outright chore — you miss the visual language for having to read words at the bottom of the screen.

AI is changing our ability to speak to anyone on the planet. In real time. My new Galaxy24 phone includes contemporaneous translation as you speak. And then there’s this — last week at the Davos world Economic Forum, Argentine president Javier Milei gave a speech translated simultaneously into multiple languages in real time, using a translation tool by Haygen AI. But not just translate. The video synced Milei’s lips in English, using his real voice, with his accent and with all the nuance and body language and facial expressions that amplified his message. Not perfect yet, to be sure — there’s still some awkward language. But take a look:

So much better than a translator droning on impassively, and much more effective in conveying meaning. This will surely change the dynamics of communication between languages, both for diplomats and world leaders as well as ordinary people.

Now extrapolate this to theatre, movies and TV. Actors speaking languages they don’t speak, perfectly synced with their facial expressions. TV reporters from around the world able to deliver their reports in any language. This could give billions the ability to access other cultures in more authentic ways. Literary translation is still a heavy lift, but we’re already a long way from the early days of utilitarian (and frequently wrong) Google Translate.

We’re entering a new age of global communication, and universal translators are only the first step. Avatars and synthetics will be as routine as today’s TikTok video filters.

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