My following article below was originally published as a guest editorial for 33rd Square:
Language is one of the largest barriers we have regarding unity among nations and its people. Without a clear and concise means of communication, how are we then to build peaceful relations, productive trading policies, or even let alone a sufficient venue of debate and criticism when it necessitates it? Modern, exponentially growing technology can help alleviate said barriers, I believe, if not destroy them altogether.
The United Nations is able to build peaceful relations among its members of various countries, despite them being predominantly bourgeois in nature, because they’ve helped alleviate said barriers by providing well-educated people in the fields of both linguistics and foreign language learning to ensure near-accurate translations of whoever is speaking, and to then relay back said translations to everyone else whom are listening in.
But even this is not good enough. Especially when someone’s mistranslation could very well lead to a war being waged against the person, and subsequently his/her nation, who was simply mistranslated. Iran is a good example of this on the number of occasions in which mistranslations of President Ahmadinejad’s speeches led to increasing hostility between themselves and nations like the U.S. and Israel.
Canadian foreign policy analyst Stephen Gowans has, on numerous occasions, addressed these mistranslations and the consequential – albeit unfortunate – aggression that materialized as a result:
Ahmadinejad predicted that Israel as a Zionist state would someday disappear much as South Africa as an apartheid state did. He didn’t threaten the physical destruction of Israel and expressed only the wish that historic Palestine would become a multinational democratic state of Arabs and the Jews whose ancestors arrived in Palestine before Zionist settlers.
Even if said mistranslations were deliberate, this only further substantiates my arguing against the trust of on-the-spot people-to-people translations.
How then are we to counter human error via our means of translating foreign languages? As I argued above, I believe the best means of approaching this problem is through modern, exponentially growing technology. Today our cell phones does everything that several very expensive, very large, and very useful technologies did for us during the 80’s and ’90s — only now it’s a lot less expensive, much more smaller, and far more efficient in its usage.
So why then shouldn’t we be able to use our cell phones to do what human translators could do, only far more efficiently and with far less worry of error? Truth is, we should be doing this. In fact, we’re almost there!
As Microsoft’s Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid demonstrated in front of a large audience – most of whom were Chinese – while going into sufficient detail on what their current project entails – FYI: he was speaking English – everything said was then accurately translated and relayed via computer-generated Chinese language. The audience, while certainly speechless, couldn’t help but respond with a thundering sound of applause.
Some people, I’m sure, would argue against the use of technology as a means of acquiring knowledge. I remember hearing both my parents and grandparents – and even my friends’ parents and grandparents – trying to critique students’ use of calculators when doing math homework. Their arguments were that these technologies were eliminating knowledge, itself, instead of enhancing our means of acquiring said knowledge. This is, of course, absurd.
Like calculators, cell phones are receiving equal treatment of criticism by an older generation who were, unfortunately, forced to rely on methods that were far less efficient in comparison to our methods today in acquiring the knowledge we seek. The problem, though, is that these people refuse to ask themselves why they had to rely on those older methods, rather instead the methods we use today. The answer is simple: it was their only means of acquiring the knowledge they sought for.
Back then, when a math exam was scheduled, students were practically forced to spend weeks, if not longer, studying for said exam. And by studying, I mean going through a very meticulous means of analyzing how a certain formula operates in order to figure out how they reached the answer they attained. After all, there was always the high probability that their understanding of the formula was wrong, thus their answer wrong as a result.
Today, we can use a calculator – or better yet, a simple search query using Wolfram Alpha – to ensure a correct answer. In fact, if you were to type in any mathematical problem using Wolfram Alpha, not only would you receive the correct answer, but the computational search engine would also provide you mass details on how the formula used to acquire said answer worked.
So how then are we eliminating knowledge, itself, rather than enhancing our means of acquiring said knowledge? Simple: we’re not! And cell phones are no exception. Hell, your cell phone has a calculator built in it! So double the knowledge while using less resources? Sounds like a damn good idea to me!
And if Microsoft’s Rick Rashid’s demonstration tells us anything, it’s that not only will we enhance our knowledge a thousand-fold, if not much more, but we’ll subsequently destroy the very inertia in which barriers to foreign language communications have haunted us since the evolutionary birth of both Homo sapiens and their journey into linguistic consciousness.