Communication Throwdown: The Struggle to be Understood

Sep 19, 2013

And the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

Genesis 11:6

In the small fishing village of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, I learned the importance of communication. It was 1984 and my Dad was bringing our family back to his home country. Born in Mexico City, my Dad had moved to the United States when he was 16 years old. His fluency in both Spanish and English made him the perfect tour guide for sharing the rich history of the region. After several days of exploring an island full of parrots and braving the open air markets everything seemed to be going well. But on the fourth day, in a rickety cab on the way back to our hotel, I burst into tears. Dad put his arm around me and asked what was wrong. "I can't talk to anyone", I sobbed. I knew a few Spanish words but I was not even close to being fluent. My eight year old ears couldn't understand what people were saying around me. And even worse, I didn't know how to respond to anyone. I was alone in a sea of conversations that I desperately wanted to participate in.

The power of communication is evident throughout the history of humankind. Whether it's Biblical stories about the Tower of Babel, misinterpreted spies in courts of old, or even modern day marketing gaffs in foreign countries, the struggle to be understood continues to this day. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs places the importance of being understood and belonging third, after physical needs and safety. The current reality is that we have lots of tools to tell us how to say "Thank You" in German. But the battle for who will solve the instant language translation issue is heating up and the folks at Google have focused their attention on solving the problem.

In a recent Spiegel article, Franz Josef Och head of Google Translate, laid out his vision for what's next. Och wants to build a perfect translation machine that will instantly translate any text or audio fed into it. And current tools show that we may not be too far away from that dream becoming a reality. You can use the current Google Translate app on iOS or Android to convert your speech to text which will then be translated into 17 different languages. It will also translate to over 60 different languages if you input the text manually.

But it's not just Google that has been involved in the research and development in instantaneous translation. One of the oldest translation tools out there just made a unnoticed passing last year. Launched in 1997 was one of the first online translation tools. After being passed from AltaVista to Yahoo, in 2012 it was quietly put to rest and all links were forwarded to Microsoft's Bing Translator. The babelfish name came from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams where he tells the story of a small fish that turns any sound into a language you can understand. Simply pop the Babelfish into your ear and alien words become easy to understand. In yet another layer of homage, the fictitious fish name from Adams is a literary nod to the Tower of Babel story from the Bible where the world is plunged into chaos when everyone begins speaking different languages.

Other more recent forays into solving the on demand communication issues include more recognizable names. Just a few weeks ago Facebook acquired Mobile Technologies, a company providing voice recognition and translation software. Microsoft has its own ongoing projects including software that will translate your words using your own pre-recorded voice. And there are multiple apps on both Android and iOS that offer varying degrees of speech to translated text services. What intrigues me the most about this particular Google vision is the wide ranging effects it could have on our world. If this project or others like it are successful, it will do more than just calm the frustrated eight year old kid inside all of us. It will allow for instant understanding between people around the world. As long as we don't start building a giant tower I think everything will work out just fine. Godspeed Google and buena suerte!