In his cult science-fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, originally created as a late-night BBC radio comedy in 1978, author Douglas Adams describes how Earth’s Arthur Dent is able to perfectly understand and communicate with the various alien races he encounters thanks to the Babel fish in his ear – small, yellow, leech-like, “it feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it […] and then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them […] if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”
The automatic translation of text from one language to another has indeed been one of the earliest goals for computers. While auto-translation systems easily mastered single words and short sentences, longer, more complex passages still pose challenges because of different grammatical structures and language subtleties as well as contextual meaning.
Nonetheless, 40 years on from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, reality has almost caught up with sci-fi. While online translation tools are often derided for producing gibberish, accuracy has improved, with apps using neural machine translation, relying on an artificial neural network simulating the human brain’s approach to translation, crucially able to “learn” through experience. Also available are wireless earbuds that translate what they hear into the language of your choice and transmit it to your ear. The translation doesn’t happen at conversational speed – not quite Babel fish – but makes it possible to have a simple, if somewhat halting, chat in another language.
Digital technology has also come to the rescue of minority/endangered languages. While globalisation is often viewed as exerting pressure on smaller cultures to assimilate, modern digital tools have breathed new life into the erstwhile moribund languages of such communities. Talking dictionaries are an example, helping preserve endangered languages and prevent their extinction – the interactive online platforms comprise audio recordings of dying languagesas well as photographs of cultural objects, providing visibility and currency.
Towel Day is celebrated on May 25 every year as a tribute to the late Adams (a towel, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have). Always know where your towel is but also celebrate what the Babel fish represents: enhanced awareness and communicative skills in our multicultural, multilingual universe (but not its causing “more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation”).