Bow wow to you, too

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2006, 12:00am

I'm learning Japanese. It's so that I can get more out of my holidays in Japan and ... so that I can finally understand what my dogs are trying to say.

It's not that I have some special breed of genetically enhanced dog that walks on two legs and speaks Japanese, nor do I have one of those Japanese robot dogs put out by Sony. My dogs are normal; they bark like any other. The Japanese will come in when I start to use 'Bowlingual', an invention that translates a dog's speech into human speech.

I've always admired how the Japanese put the human touch into their technological innovations. Now that touch extends to non-humans as well.

Bowlingual was presented to the public more than three years ago by Takara Corporation and was awarded the somewhat dubious honour of an Ig Nobel Prize, given to achievements that 'first make people laugh, and then make them think'. Takara recorded the various sounds a dog can make, noted what the canine utterances meant in differing circumstances, and then matched them with appropriate human phrases.

The contraption comes with a dainty little microphone that attaches to a dog's collar, which transmits the dog's voice to a hand-held translator with an LCD screen.

Dogs will never again be frustrated when they ask for food and their owner takes them for a walk instead.

Every morning before I leave for work, I practise my Japanese and imagine that, before long, Coco and Kate will be jumping up to say: 'Seeing you, master, is my deepest pleasure.'

But then, scepticism rears its nay-saying head. How, might I ask, could this device possibly turn a dog's barks into polite Japanese greetings? Do barks have varying tones that reflect the subtle differences in Japanese language usage? Talk about lost in translation. In fact the very reason I wanted to learn Japanese instead of using the translated English version of Bowlingual was to avoid the additional linguistic leap where so much meaning gets lost. And what about regional differences among dogs? Do all dogs speak the same language? I would be pretty upset if I learned Japanese only to find that Bowlingual can translate only for Akitas and Shibas.

It was during my labours to learn a new language that I thought of something much more logical. Takara should flip it around and make a machine that interprets human language for dogs. That is, turn my speech into a series of barks.

That makes at least as much sense as the current invention. I mean, human beings have had thousands of years to develop sophisticated systems of expression that go far beyond measuring the tone or volume of our voice. Dogs are the ones that need translators.

I would have so much to tell them. First, I would explain some basic ground rules. No barking after 10pm. No jumping on the sofa. Then I would prepare them for the future. Ok girls, take a deep breath, and prepare for the worst: cats. Two cats are moving in with us.

Maybe I would even confide in them my deeper anxieties: you're lucky to be dogs. I think the world of humans is senseless and futile. With all our petty struggles, all our defeats and victories, we are no more than purposeless flecks in the linoleum of the universe. We could then all share a hearty laugh about it. How wonderful it would feel to finally be understood. For inventors out there, it's time to get started.

Lu Ping is Taiwan's cultural envoy in Hong Kong